Iran's Christians wonder where they can freely worship

(L-R) Babak Hosseinzadeh, Behnam Akhlaghi and Saheb Fadaie. Iran's Christians wonder where they can freely worship

Two Iranian Christian converts from Islam have made video appeals to their government, asking where they can worship after being given five-year sentences for belonging to a house church.

The appeals are part of a new campaign to support Persian-speaking Christians, #Place2Worship, launched this week by Christian charities Open Doors, Article18, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) and Release International among others.

Babak Hosseinzadeh and Behnam Akhlaghi were part of a group of nine Christian converts arrested for being members of a house church in Iran's northern city of Rasht in 2019.

A court then sentenced the men to five years in prison on charges of "acting against national security through promoting Christian Zionism".

Both men were recently allowed a few weeks out of prison on furlough. During this time they recorded the messages, calling on their government to explain where they could attend church after their release.

The men have been joined in their appeal by Saheb Fadaie, a pastor who is serving a six-year prison sentence.

Mr Akhlaghi told the Iranian government in his video: "If I am told, 'We respect your faith, we respect your beliefs, and the only problem we have with you is that you attend a house church,' my question is, if this respect truly exists, then where should I attend a church after my release? Where should I practise my faith as a Christian?"

One of the videos shows Mr Hosseinzadeh being reunited with his young daughter during his brief leave from prison.

The charities have brought the videos to the attention of the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet.

In a joint letter, they raise concerns over changes made earlier this year to sections of Iran's Islamic Penal Code relating to "anti-security groups" and "propaganda against the state" which they say "provide even greater scope for the authorities to bring charges against members of unrecognised religious-minority groups, such as Persian-
speaking Christians, on spurious and ambiguous grounds."

"Persian-speaking Christians are now wondering where they can freely gather to worship," the letter says.

CSW's Founder President Mervyn Thomas said: "This letter is an important reminder of the plight facing Christians in Iran, who continue to experience a wide range of violations of their right to freedom of religion or belief on a daily basis.

"We reiterate our call on Iran to enable full enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion or belief in full for all of its citizens, and we urge the government and the international community to take forward the recommendations made in the letter as a matter of urgency."

Open Doors' director of advocacy Dr David Landrum said: "Only four Persian-speaking churches in Iran have remained open and these are under heavy surveillance, forbidden from welcoming visitors or new members.

"This has forced many to try and worship in their homes, an act that is protected for those who practice Shia Islam but not for Christians."

Iranian Christians' lack of a place to worship "is a violation for their right to religious freedom as described in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – something that Iran signed up to", Dr Landrum said.

He added that if Christian converts are caught participating in a house church, they are arrested and imprisoned on charges of "acting against national security".

Iran ranks eighth highest on Opens Doors' World Watch List of 50 countries where Christians are facing the most extreme persecution.

"Converts from Islam bear the brunt of religious freedom violations, carried out by the government and to a lesser extent by society and the converts' families," the charity says.