Iran frees nine Christian convicted of anti-state activities
This is a positive sign even though Rev Matthias Abdulreza Ali Haghnejad and eight members of the Church of Iran still face a review of their trial. For religious advocacy group, the charges are unfounded; those involved simply exercised their right to freedom of worship. A number of Christian inmates enjoy a 10-day leave at Christmas.
Tehran (AsiaNews) – Iranian authorities have released nine Christians, a Protestant clergyman and eight members of his community, sending an encouraging signal after repeated acts of abuse and repression.
The Christians, who were given lengthy prison terms, are free but not yet off the hook since their sentences are under review, not squashed.
Nevertheless, their cases bring some hope to the cause of religious freedom in the country, especially for those who abandon Islam for Christianity.
The release of the jailed Christians took place at the turn of the new year, but was reported only in recent days, and was greeted with satisfaction by international human rights groups.
Those freed include Rev Matthias Abdulreza Ali Haghnejad, of the Church of Iran, who was serving a five-year in prison, along with eight other members of his community.
The Protestant clergyman were jailed after a brief trial in September 2019, on charges of “endangering state security” and “promoting Zionist Christianity”. They were also accused of setting up a house church.
Rev Haghnejad appealed his conviction in early 2020, hoping at least to be placed under house arrest since Iranian prisons have become huge COVID-19 superspreading hubs following the outbreak of the pandemic.
However, the court turned down his application after Ayatollah Khamanei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, reportedly permitted the presiding judge to bypass court procedures.
The case was closely monitored by various international organisations, including Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), which has worked for the clergyman’s release with appeals and support initiatives.
At the time of their arrest, the Christian advocacy group had expressed deep concern about the “lack of due process”, claiming that “the charges against them are without basis”. For this reason, it called “for their immediate and unconditional release”.
The sentence and the failed appeal seemed to have put an end to the story, but the case took a positive turn late last year with the release and request for a review of the trial.
Rev Haghnejad left his cell on 30 December, while his co-religionists were let out on 1 January.
CSW president Mervyn Thomas welcomed the news and expressed cautious optimism, as the nine can now “return home after spending nearly three years in prison”.
“However, they are still facing unfounded and excessive charges simply for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief,” he added.
In his view, “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.”
Meanwhile, Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei, head of Iran’s judiciary, instructed prison authorities to grant Christian inmates ten days' leave to “mark the New Year 2022 and the anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ”.
Armenian and Assyrian Christians have benefited from this measure, but so has Milad Goudarzi, a convert condemned for apostasy and “engaging in propaganda that educates in a deviant way contrary to the holy religion of Islam”.