TEHRAN, Iran — An Iranian pastor has been sentenced to six years in prison for spreading Christianity in the nation, an act that is believed to be seen by the government as a threat to the Iranian regime.
As previously reported, Behnam Irani, who leads the 300-member Church of Iran in Karaj, was initially detained in 2006 while holding a Bible study and sentenced to prison five years later for “action against the state.”
In June, he was interrogated on five occasions for four hours each. Authorities then added 18 new charges against the 41-year-old pastor, including Mofsed fel-Arz or “spreading corruption on Earth,” which carries the death penalty. Another translation of the charge is “enemies of God on Earth.”
However, earlier this month, the charges were reduced and Irani instead faced accusations of “action against national security” and “creating a network to overthrow the system,” which are stated to be catchalls to criminalize anyone deemed a threat to the government. On Sunday, Irani was declared guilty by Judge Asel Al-Hosseyn, and two other leaders with the Church of Iran, Abdolreza Ali-Haghnejad and Reza Rabbani, were sentenced as well.
“The Iranians are chess players,” Jason DeMars of Present Truth Ministries told Morning Star News. “They always pride themselves that they play chess, so I believe they were bringing these higher-level crimes in order to make it more digestible that they gave a six-year sentence, and also to test the waters on how the international community would respond to these type of charges.”
“It is possible that they just wanted to threaten with the death sentence to make a long-term prison term more acceptable to the international public,” added church member Firouz Khandjani to Boz News. “However, for Irani six more years in prison mean a death sentence as he is very ill.”
Irani has a 12-year-old and 6-year-old daughter with his wife Kristina. As Irani has already been serving a six-year sentence surrounding his church work, he is not expected to be released util the year 2023.
DeMars said that the prison in which Irani will serve his sentence presents a danger to the pastor.
“This prison that Behnam is going to be transferred to is on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, so it’s a place that is filled with drug dealers and drug smugglers who are bringing opium into the country over the border of Afghanistan,” he explained. “It’s an extremely dangerous place.”
According to reports, the Iranian government has been cracking down harder on Christians under the rule of President Hassan Rouhani, who was elected last year. Boz News states that “[o]fficials have expressed concern about a growing number of Muslims embracing the Christian faith, with numbers ranging from 100,000 to several times that figure.”
Some Christians have fled the country due to persecution, but others have decided to stay and live out their faith despite the risk of arrest.
As previously reported, the high-profile case of Youcef Nadarkhani made headlines in 2012 when he faced the death penalty in Iran on charges of apostasy against Islam. He first arrested in October 2009 for protesting against the Iranian government’s new policy to require all children to study the Koran. Nadarkhani was charged with apostasy and for attempted conversion of Muslims, and was incarcerated while proceedings went forward.
In 2011, the Iranian Supreme Court informed Nadarkhani that they would drop the charges if he converted to Islam. He refused, and remained imprisoned. He was released in September of the following year after outcry from a number of international groups, although some expressed concern about Nadarkhani’s beliefs, namely his rejection of the tripartite Godhead.