TEHRAN, Iran — Three Iranian pastors who were sentenced to six years in prison for committing “action against national security” and “creating a network to overthrow the system”—charges believed to be used as a catchall against anyone deemed a threat to the government —have now been acquitted of their crimes.
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, in October, the charges were reduced and Irani instead faced accusations of “action against national security” and “creating a network to overthrow the system.” Two other leaders with the Church of Iran, Abdolreza Ali-Haghnejad and Reza Rabbani, were charged as well. All three were declared guilty by Judge Asel Al-Hosseyn, and were sentenced to six years behind bars.
During an appeal hearing last month, Moshkani Farahani, an attorney for the pastors argued that the crimes were baseless.
“[He] also contended that people cannot be sentenced on political charges for simply belonging to a religious fellowship; in this case, a Christian community: ‘It is normal for members of minorities to be in touch with each other; Jews are in touch with others, Zoroastrians are in touch with each other. It is the same for Assyrians, Orthodoxes and Evangelicals. Such connections cannot be perceived as a penal crime,'” he said, according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
During a follow-up hearing on Dec. 9, an appeals court overturned the convictions of all three men. Haghnejad and Rabbani were released, but Irani still faces another two years behind bars from his previous five year sentence.
International Christian Concern (CCC) rejoiced after learning that the men had been vindicated.
“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,” Regional Manager Todd Daniels remarked in a statement. “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.”
“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,” he continued. “We continue to call for the full release of Pastor Benham Irani, Saeed Abedini and the dozens more who are imprisoned unjustly.”