Although Iran recognizes Christians as an official minority group, its revolutionary court sentenced 18 of them to harsh prison sentences last week.
According to a report on Fox News written by Benjamin Weinthal of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Iran's secretive judicial system imposed sentences to 18 Christian converts "for charges including evangelism, propaganda against the regime, and creating house churches to practice their faith." Persian-language Radio Farda, which is funded by the United States, reported that the sentences totaled to around 24 years.
"The cruelty of Iran's dictatorial leaders knows no limits," executive director Saba Farzan of Foreign Policy Circle said.
Weinthal reported that many of the Christians were arrested back in 2013. They were sentenced in accordance to Article 500 of the Islamic Penal Code, which is used as "a catch-all criminal statute to penalize threats to Iran's clerical rulers."
"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," the law stated.
Iranian Christian Morad Mokhtari, who fled the country in 2006, told Fox News that some of the Christians faced charges related to "home church activities."
"Iranian religious authorities prefer that they [converts to Christianity] leave Iran because the authorities can't control them," Mokhatari said. "Just their name is evangelism. Imagine someone says he is a Christian and has a Muslim name."
According to Fox News, two independent reports published in 2015 documented intense persecution for Iranians who converted to Christianity. These reports were conducted by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom and a UN study on human rights.
"Over the past year, there were numerous incidents of Iranian authorities raiding church services, threatening church members, and arresting and imprisoning worshipers and church leaders, particularly Evangelical Christian converts," the commission's report stated. "Since 2010, authorities arbitrarily arrested and detained more than 500 Christians throughout the country."
Weinthal reported that Iran's constitution "guarantees on paper that Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism are protected religions." However, the country's government, which is dominated by Shia Muslims, relies on sharia law, delegates such minority groups as second-class citizens historically known as "dhimmi," or non-Muslim minorities living in Islamic society.
Farzan contended to Fox News that Iran's crackdown on Christians is proof that the U.S. cannot negotiate a deal with Iran in good faith when it comes to the nuclear talks.
"They never made sense and never will," Farzan said. "The West can't discuss arms control with a leadership that oppresses religious minorities and human rights activists."