Nine Christians including a pastor from Iran was released from imprisonment last week and are awaiting the final verdict on the cases filed against them.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), a United Kingdom-based organization advocating freedom of religion, announced that the Iranian Christians included Church of Iran Pastor Matthias (Abdulreza Ali) Haghnejad that was released on Dec. 30 and is awaiting his new trial.
While the remaining Christian prisoners were released on January 1 and are awaiting the review of their sentences. The said eight prisoners are Behnam Akhlaghi, Babak Hosseinzadeh, Mehdi Khatibi, Hossein Kadivar, Khalil Dehghanpour, Mohammad Vafadar, Shahrouz Eslamdoust, and Kamal Naamanian.
Accordingly, Matthias and his eight congregants were originally sentenced to five years imprisonment on charges of "endangering state security" and "promoting Zionist Christianity" during a brief trial held on Sept. 23, 2019. Though it is believed that the charges against Haghnejad and his congregants, who are all Christian converts, had nothing to do with their imprisonment.
"It is believed that the real reason for their imprisonment relates to their conversion to Christianity, thereby making activities such as proselytizing and gathering in house churches for worship a target for the authorities," CSW said.
Ayatollah Khamanei, Iran's supreme leader, allegedly permitted the judge to give a sentence to Haghnejad even without trial on Feb. 25, 2020. Tehran's Supreme Court then announced in November that it would review the sentences of the nine Iranian Christians.
The review arose after the Supreme Court judges deemed it not illegal to establish home churches and proselytising. CSW raised that a source revealed the Tehran Supreme Court were going against internal pressure from the police regarding the case.
"Some judges refuse to take orders from the secret police. This new development does not necessarily mean that they will be released but probably there will be a new trial," the source told CSW.
CSW Founder Mervyn Thomas appreciated in a statement last November that the Supreme Court's actions but pointed out that Haghnejad and companions' imprisonment were nonetheless "excessive" and "baseless."
"CSW welcomes the judges' affirmation that proselytizing and establishing home churches are not illegal activities, and the prospect that the case against these Christians will be reviewed," Thomas said.
"However, we note that these men were convicted of national security charges, which are excessive, baseless and amount to the criminalization of Christian activities. CSW continues to call for their unconditional and immediate release, and for an end to the unjust treatment of religious minorities by the Iranian authorities," he added.
In line with the release of Haghnejad and companions, Thomas reiterated that these Christian men spent three years imprisonment despite "facing unfounded and excessive charges simply for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief."
"They have committed no crimes, and we continue to call for their exoneration, and to urge the Iranian authorities to end use of national security-related charges against members of the Christian community who are peaceably exercising practicing their faith," Thomas emphasized.
Christianity Daily reported a similar incident of Christian converts being arrested last Sept. 5 for attending worship services in a home in Rasht, a city in Iran's Gilan Province. The converts were Morteza Mashoodkari, Ayoob Poor-Rezazadeh, and Ahmad Sarparast.
These arrests are but a reflection of Iran's "systemic persecution of Christians" as per a United Nations Report in January last year. These persecutions were projected to increase following the presidential June elections, which resulted to former Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi being seated to the country's top post despite being known for his conservative views.