A Persian-language news outlet reported this week that Iran has sentenced a group of 18 Christians to between one and ten years in prison each for organizing “house churches” and “propaganda against the regime.”
The news surfaces as activists continue to call for the liberation of U.S. citizen Saeed Abedini, a pastor arrested after Muslim Iranians complained that he was open about his faith in public.
Radio Farda announced the news of the sentences, though the names of those affected have not been released. The sentences came down from the court between March and May, and vary between one-year sentences for some in the group to up to ten years for five Christians in the group considered church leaders. Even those sentenced to one year in prison are forbidden from leaving Iran for two years after their sentences conclude.
Fox News adds that they were all sentenced for violating various provisions of Article 500 of the Islamic Penal Code, which does not specifically target any religion, but instead states that “anyone who engages in any type of propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran or in support of opposition groups and associations, shall be sentenced to three months to one year of imprisonment.” Christianity, as a religion other than Shia Islam, is often interpreted as an “opposition group.”
Fox News quotes Morad Mokhtari, an Iranian who fled the country after converting to Christianity, as explaining that Iran often prefers Christians to leave the country rather than try to integrate within the Islamic Republic while maintaining their faith. “Just their name is evangelism,” he explains. “Imagine someone says he is a Christian and has a Muslim name.” The report estimates that as many as 500,000 Christians currently live in Iran.
The report on these arrests follows a renewed call by the wife of an American pastor jailed in Iran for the nation to liberate her husband, and for the White House to advocate on his behalf as a U.S. citizen. “For the past 3 years I have been carrying with me a deep excruciating pain knowing that my husband continues to suffer yet another day in one of the worst prisons in the world,” said Naghmeh Abedini in public statements to the House Foreign Affairs Committee this week.
Saeed Abedini converted to Christianity and moved to the United States upon marrying Naghmeh, but returned to Iran to help house churches gather members. Abedini agreed with the Iranian government to work on secular humanitarian work and is believed not to have violated Iranian law in helping those in need, but complaints from the public that he was openly Christian led to his arrest.
The U.S. Senate passed a resolution in May calling for the release of Abedini, as well as American journalist Jason Rezaian and former Marine Amir Hekmati. This followed a meeting between Abedini’s wife and President Barack Obama in January, in which the president reportedly vowed to work to free the pastor. There is no indication that American diplomats have discussed Abedini during the months-long talks with the Iranian regime regarding the development of nuclear power.