Christians Sentenced to Prison as 'Moderate' Comes to Power in Iran

Christians Sentenced to Prison as 'Moderate' Comes to Power in Iran

Photo: Hassan Rouhani

ISTANBUL (Morning Star News) – Six more Christians were sentenced for practicing their faith last week, while Iran’s presidential election of a moderate politician was not expected to soften the regime’s persecution of religious minorities.

After eight years of the hard-line rule of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hassan Rouhani proclaimed a “victory for moderation … not extremism,” expressed desire to rebuild bridges between Iran and the United States and promised to reopen stalled nuclear talks, according to The Christian Science Monitor.

While there has been optimism that the election of Rouhani and promises of reform will bring greater freedoms for persecuted religious minorities in Iran, an analyst said little will change as long as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei controls the country’s political destiny.

“[Khamenei] remains at the helm, and he has set course for utter destruction of the Christian faith in Iran,” Tiffany Barrans, international legal director for the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) told Morning Star News. “His course was well-laid long before this election, and there is no sign that he plans to change course.”

The Revolutionary Court in Shiraz, 571 miles (920 kilometers) south of Tehran, issued prison sentences of 44 months to Mojtaba Seyyed-Alaedin Hossein, Mohammad-Reza Partoei, Vahid Hakkani, and Homayoun Shokouhi for “attending a house church, spreading Christianity, having contact with foreign ministries, propaganda against the regime, and disrupting national security,” according the Mohabat News Agency. They were tried in absentia.

They had been arrested in February 2012, when police raided their house-church meeting. Officials rejected their appeal for release on bail. Hossein and Shokouhi, previously arrested in 2008 on similar accusations and handed five-year suspended sentences, received an additional eight months of imprisonment above last week’s sentence of 44 months. Additionally, Shokouhi’s wife, Fariba Nazemina, and their son, Nima Shokouhi, each received two-year suspended prison sentences.

The four men are being held in Adel Abad Prison in Shiraz, which houses hardened criminals and often lacks heating or health facilities. Officials also routinely deny medical treatment to prisoners, and as a result, Hakkani is in critical condition due to internal bleeding, according to Mohabat. Prison doctors say he is in urgent need of surgery but has little chance of receiving treatment.

The accused have not been able to contact their families since they were declared guilty. They have the option of appealing the ruling within 20 days.

Iran cracked down on non-Muslims in the run-up to the presidential elections. Last month security forces arrested an Iranian Assemblies of God pastor in Tehran and closed down his church.

Pastor Robert Asserian was a senior leader of Jama’at-e Rabbani, the Iranian branch of the Assemblies of God, which has many converts from Islam. He is one of many Christians arrested in Iran in the last several years under the guise of protecting national security. Christians have also faced church closures, interrogations and threats, and extensive monitoring of religious gatherings.

Saeed Abedini

International outrage continued over the arrest and eight-year sentencing of U.S.-Iranian pastor Saeed Abedini, 33. His wife, Naghmeh, spoke before the United Nations Human Rights Council on June 5, calling on world leaders to demand his release.

The White House has said it has pressed Iran on Abedini’s case, calling for him to be set free and receive proper medical treatment.

His family was able to visit him in prison last week. They described him as being in “good spirits,” according to the ACLJ.

Abedini said he has mostly healed from the beatings sustained in prison from guards and fellow inmates. He is still experiencing severe abdominal pain, however, and prison officials have refused him treatment.

The pastor said he was also worried that officials could relocate him in order to cut him off from his family and other prisoners of conscience. He claimed that prison guards and other officials have threatened to move him to a prison in a more remote area of southern Iran.

Abedini was arrested September for threatening “national security” during a humanitarian trip to Iran. He was sentenced Jan. 27 to spend his term in Evin Prison, known for its harsh conditions.

More than 600,000 people around the world have signed a petition for his release.

c. 2013 Morning Star News. Used with permission.

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Publication date: June 20, 2013