Three Iranian Christians Cleared From Convictions; Watchdog Groups Praise Decision

( [email protected] ) Dec 16, 2014 05:35 PM EST
Three Iranian Christian leaders have been cleared of wrongdoing after an appeals hearing in Iran, garnering the praise of persecution watchdog groups
Pastor Saeed Abedini is among the many Christians still suffering in Iranian prisons for their Christian faith. (Courtesy of Naghmeh Abedini)

Persecution watchdog groups are "encouaged" after the prison sentences of three Iranian Christian leaders arrested for "spreading corruption" were overturned following an appeals hearing.

Pastor Matthias Haghnejad and Deacon Silas Rabbani have been granted their freedom after their six-year sentences were overturned, but pastor Benhram Irani is still serving six years for previous convictions, confirms Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

"We are extremely pleased to learn of the release of Pastor Matthias Haghnejad, Deacon Silas Rabbani, Hossein Baraunzadeh and Rahman Bahman," CSW's Chief Executive, Mervyn Thomas, confirmed in a letter to the AP. "While we welcome this news, we remain concerned at the continued detention of Amin Khaki and long-term prisoners like Behnam Irani and Farshi Fathi - all of whom who have been unjustly detained."

Thomas continued, "We continue to call on the Iranian government to uphold the rule of law and allow the country's religious minorities to enjoy freedom of religion or belief as guaranteed under Iran's own constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which it is party."

Haghnejad, Rabbani and Irani were initially charged with Mofsed-e-filarz, or spreading corruption on earth, while the two pastors faced the charge of Moharebeh, enmity against God, both of which are capital offenses within the country.

These charges were later dropped and the men were tried for "action against national security" and "creating a network to overthrow the system", and each sentenced to six-year imprisonment.

Irani currently remains in Ghezal Hesar Prison in Karaj  where he has served four years out of a five-year sentence for "action against national security," and a separate one-year sentence for action against the state.

Persecution watchdog International Christian Concern has also praised the court's decision to overturn the sentences, but said there is much more progress to be made regarding religious freedoms in Iran.

"It is encouraging to see the Iranian judicial system rule on the merits of the case, rather than simply exploiting the system as a means of persecuting religious minorities, as is regularly the case. It is a fundamental aspect of religious freedom to be able to meet together with others who share your beliefs. For too long, the Iranian regime has treated such meetings as a threat to national security," ICC Regional Manager Todd Daniels said.

"The judicial system should uphold the commitments made by the Iranian government both in its constitution and in International Agreements to provide religious freedom for its citizens and should end the prosecution and unjust imprisonment of Christians for nothing more than practicing their religious beliefs. We continue to call for the full release of Pastor Benham Irani, Saeed Abedini, and the dozens more who are imprisoned unjustly."

In January, the UN said it was alarmed by the increase in executions under President Hassan Rouhani, who came to power in August 2013. Between January and June there were 411 executions recorded, and eight men have already been executed for 'Moharebeh' this year.