Legislation passed by parliament in Iran could make it easier to arrest and imprison Christians and other religious minorities, rights advocates said.
Under amendments to articles 499 and 500 of the Islamic Penal Code, those found guilty of "deviant psychological manipulation" or "propaganda contrary to Islam," whether in the "real or virtual sphere," could be labeled as "sects," according to advocacy group Article 18.
The law enables the regime to ban any group as a sect and may lead to punishment that could be escalated to include the death penalty, said Hamid Garagozloo, U.S. representative of The International Organization to Preserve Human Rights (IOPHR), while moderating a recent webinar panel discussion with representatives of religious minorities that could be affected by the law.
Expanding the margin for Iranian authorities to justify discriminatory actions against Christian converts, the law would make it more difficult for lawyers to defend them and other religious minorities, according to a Middle East expert at advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).
While the amendment has been in the pipeline for two years, it was recently approved by parliament in the middle of May, according to a researcher at advocacy group Middle East Concern (MEC).
"The last couple of weeks, religious minorities have started to take notice and are thinking about what to do and how to raise awareness," he said. "It is quite worrying, because the amendments made, rather than protecting religious freedom at all, try to define exactly who is following fundamental theology or not."
Before the law is implemented, it must be approved by the Guardian Council in Iran, he said, adding that it is unclear when that decision could be made.
The government has been arresting Christian converts and giving them sentences of up to 15 years under vague terms such as, "acting against national security," said Mansour Borji, advocacy director of Article 18 in the webinar hosted by IOPHR. In the past decade, these charges have been used to replace more obvious religious charges such as apostasy, he said. This obscuring of religious freedom violations by shying away from terms like "apostasy" was largely due to international pressure, according to Article 18.
Advocates believe this effort to extend greater control could be the regime's reaction to losing credibility among its people amid economic difficulties and poor handling of the novel coronavirus pandemic. As crises in the country mount, they said, religious minorities and Western Christianity may become an easy scapegoat.
"Many Christian groups and church leaders are worried because this would add another layer to their ongoing suffering at the hands of the Islamic regime," said the expert at CSW.
Other religious minorities that would be affected by the law include Sunni and Sufi Muslims and the Baha'i.
Aside from Shia Islam and Judaism, Christianity is one of the three recognized religions in Iran. Protections, however, apply only to a small number of approved Christian groups, namely ethnically Christian Assyrians and Armenians.
All but a handful of churches who offered their services in the national language of Farsi have been forced to close since the Islamic revolution in the 1970s, Borji said in the webinar. The remaining churches are monitored to make sure that no Muslim-born Iranians attend them. Converts are forced to practice their faith in secret, underground churches and are routinely harassed and arrested, he said.
Most recently, four Iranian Christian converts accused of endangering state security and promoting Zionism obeyed a summons issued at the end of May and presented themselves to Evin Prison to begin serving sentences of five years each, according to MEC.
Hossein Kadivar, Khalil Dehghanpour, Kamal Naamanian and Mohammed Vafadar had been released on bail of about $13,000 each last July. All but Vafadar are married with children.
The four were among nine Christian converts belonging to the Church of Iran who were arrested at the beginning of 2019 over a four-week period. In October 2019, all nine were convicted of "acting against national security" and given five-year sentences, which were held on appeal in February.
"It is very sad, of course, for those people involved," the MEC representative said. "It's easy to say five years, but for the people who actually experience this, it's so difficult."
The remaining five men out of nine have been in Evin Prison, unable to post bail following a disagreement with a judge over their choice of a defense lawyer.
About a year-and-a-half ago, Iran set which lawyers would be able to defend political prisoners. The five were unwilling to let go of the lawyer they chose, who was not on the list. This angered the judge and caused him to set the exorbitant bail, according to the researcher at MEC.
They were immediately transferred to Evin Prison after not being able to meet the bail amount of $130,000 each, according to MEC.
Reduction in Sentences
After an appeal, three other Christian converts who had been handed sentences of 10-years were given a reduction of their sentences.
Sentences against Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani and Zaman (Saheb) Fadaie were reduced to six years, and for Mohammadreza (Yuhan) Omidi, to two years, according to MEC.
Omidi was expected to be eligible for release in July. The decision regarding a fourth church member who was arrested and convicted at the same time, Yasser Mossaybezadeh, was not yet known.
The men will appeal again, said the expert at CSW.
The men and their families were hoping that the sentences would be completely overturned, said the expert at MEC, as they should never have been in prison in the first place.
"On the one hand it's great that it's been reduced, but on the other hand, they were expecting more," he said.
An appeal hearing to review the cases of Pastor Victor Bet Tamraz, his wife Shamiram Issavi Khabizeh and three Christian converts was canceled with no reason given, according to MEC.
Advocates are not sure why the appeal has been delayed but it could be because the case of Tamraz has become publicized, said the researcher at MEC. There are many inconsistencies and mistakes in handling the case, he said, which could be another reason for the delay. Continually delayed hearings are also often used as a form of harassment, he added.
Four other Christians belonging to the Church of Iran denomination were accused of spreading "Zionist Evangelical Christianity" and "home church meetings," according to a CSW press statement.
They received a summons from the third branch of the Public and Revolutionary Prosecutor's Office of Tehran on June 19, according to the release.
Judges Hassan Babaie and Zenjani signed a verdict based on Article 498 of the Islamic Penal Code, which criminalizes the establishment of groups that aim to "overthrow the system," according to CSW.
Iran was ranked ninth on Christian support organization Open Doors' 2020 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.
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