Iranian authorities charged a well-known pastor with "acts against national security" and beat another as persecution of Christians continued the past month.
Youcef Nadarkhani, a pastor once charged with apostasy and then acquitted in 2012, was charged with acting against national security. Summoned to the 13th Branch of the Revolutionary Court in Rasht on July 24, he was released but then told he had a week to raise the equivalent of US$ 33,000 in security bond, according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).
It was unclear why the court would release him without bond in order to raise a bond for his release. It was also unclear how much of the bond Nadarkhani has been able to raise.
Iranian Security Service (VEVAK) officers on May 13 raided the home of Nadarkhani and his wife, Tina Nadarkhani, in Rasht along with 10 other Christian households. The Nadarkhanis were arrested and then released immediately. Three other Christian converts, Mohammadreza Omidi, Yasser Mossayebzadeh and Saheb Fadaie, were detained and then later released without charge on a bond of approximately US$33,000.
"With regards to Pastor Nadarkhani, the authorities summoned him, charged him and let him go home to raise the money within seven days, at which point he will be imprisoned if he fails," said Kiri Kankhwende, senior press officer for CSW. "We cannot speculate as to why his case was handled this way while the other three members of his church were detained pending bail. Conjecture may prove unhelpful, so we would rather not speculate."
In 2010, the Iranian government charged Nadarkhani with apostasy and sentenced him to death. The charges stemmed from a 2009 arrest after Nadarkhani went to his children's school to question the Islamic-only religious education that was available. In September 2012, he was released from prison following his acquittal on apostasy charges. He was found guilty of evangelizing, however, ordered back to prison on Dec. 25, 2012 and released on Dec. 7, 2013.
Mervyn Thomas, CSW's chief executive, said in a press statement, "It is deeply troubling to hear of the renewed harassment of Pastor Nadarkhani. The national security charges leveled against him are spurious and an indication that the authorities persist in criminalizing the Christian community for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief."
Christian prisoner Maryam Naghash Zargaran, 36, ended a hunger strike she had resumed on July 5 after Iranian authorities denied her demands for early release.
Because Zargaran has served a third of her sentence and has shown good behavior, she qualifies for review for early release, according to Iranian statutes. She also sought release for several medical ailments, including a serious congenital heart condition known as an atrial septal defect, commonly referred to as "a hole in the heart." Zargaran also has severe headaches accompanied by ear pain, tremors, chronic joint and spine pain and numbness in her hands and legs.
According to Middle East Concern (MEC), on July 20 prison officials examined Zargaran and produced a medical report confirming that her medical condition was serious. Nevertheless, according to MEC, "Maryam's request was considered and denied by an Iranian court, and the reason given for rejecting her demand was that MOIS [Iranian Ministry of Intelligence] did not want her to be freed."
According to the International Campaign for Human Rights, an official from MOIS met with Zargaran last month in prison and said that officials would review her case.
It is likely family pressure had some role in Zargaran's decision to end her hunger strike. Twenty days into the protest, Zargaran's family and friends noted a significant deterioration in her health.
"Prison medical staff say that her blood pressure is very low, she has pains and numbness in her feet - possibly early signs of Multiple Sclerosis - and that she is suffering psychologically as a consequence of her imprisonment," MEC said in an earlier statement about her hunger strike.
The July hunger strike was not the first time Zargaran chose to starve herself over her detention. On May 27, she began a hunger strike to protest the prosecutor's repeated refusal to allow her to temporarily leave the prison and go to a hospital for treatment that the prison wouldn't or couldn't provide. On June 6, she received permission to go to a hospital and stopped her hunger strike. But on June 19 she was ordered to return to prison. She complied and returned on June 27, too soon, sources said, for proper treatment of her infirmities. She resumed her hunger strike soon after.
Iranian officials arrested Zargaran in January 2013 for her activities in the Iranian house-church movement and her association with Saeed Abedini, a U.S.-Iranian Christian pastor imprisoned on fabricated charges related to his house-church work. Zargaran was found guilty of "threatening national security" and sentenced to four years in prison, which she began serving on July 13, 2013. An appeal for retrial was denied..
Firoozi, a prisoner in Gohardasht Prison in Iran, was summoned to the appeal hearing but refused to go because he thought it was sufficient for his lawyer to attend in his absence. Ironically, when Firoozi was brought to court, one of the judges in the case was absent, and the appeal hearing was postponed. It is set to reconvene in November.
A welder from Robat Karim, 25 kilometers (16 miles) southwest of Tehran, Firoozi has been under the scrutiny of the Iranian security apparatus since January 2010, when he was arrested for leaving Islam and hosting religious meetings. A Revolutionary Court convicted him of creating "propaganda against the state" and sentenced him to 10 months in prison, of which five were suspended.
He was released on June 8, 2011 but then arrested again on March 8, 2012. Charged with creating "propaganda against the state" for allegedly trying to create a website about Christianity, he was sentenced to one year in prison and two years in exile.
On Sept. 16, 2013, Firoozi was arrested a third time, and on April 2015, a judge in Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court sentenced him to five years in prison for "creating a group with the intention of disturbing national security" for his role in organizing Christian meetings and conducting evangelical work.
Firoozi appealed but had been waiting for last month's hearing for a year. During that time, he has been denied access to religious books, even though the books he requested were published with the permission of the Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry, according to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
The whereabouts of four Christians from Azerbaijan arrested in Iran in June remain unknown. According to MEC, Eldar Gurbanov, Yusif Farhadov and Bahram Nasibov from Word of Life Church in Baku all went missing on June 24 after security agents raided an engagement party in Tehran and arrested about 10 people. Most of those arrested were released, but the four were detained. Their location is unknown, but they were able to contact their families once or twice, despite being confined in solitary holding cells.
Through MEC, the families of the three men issued a brief statement about the arrest and detention.
"On 22nd June 2016 our husbands and fathers - Eldar Gurbanov, Yusif Farhadov and Bahram Nasibov - travelled to Tehran in the Islamic Republic of Iran," the statement read. "They were invited as guests in Iran to participate in an engagement ceremony and meet with their Iranian friends. As we discovered later, they were arrested on 24th June by security agents during an engagement ceremony and they have not been charged with any crime. Eldar, 48, Yusif, 51, and Bahram, 37, are all married and have children. Yusif has a young son with Down's syndrome under his care. They have not been charged with any crime, and their future is unknown to all of us. We ask all who are concerned to help our husbands and fathers to return safely to their homes!"
According to Present Truth Ministries, Amin Khaki, an assistant pastor and convert from Islam, was released July 14 from Ahvaz Prison. Khaki was arrested March 5, 2014 along with seven other Christians at a picnic in Shoush, in Khuzestan Province.
Khaki and three other Christians were later found guilty and sentenced to one year in prison for spreading Christianity. A re-trial was held onFeb. 1, and the sentences were upheld. In June, all four Christians presented themselves to Ahvaz Prison to serve their sentences.
Present Truth Ministries was concerned that Khaki would be forced to serve a previously suspended sentence of a year, but the threat never materialized, and he was released. Hossein Barounzadeh, Mohammad Bahrami and Rahman Bahmani still have four months left of their sentences to serve.