TEHRAN, Iran — An Iranian pastor who has been behind bars for the past five years has been set free, various sources report.
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 given a suspended five-year sentence. He was arrested again in 2010 for “action against the state” for continuing to hold the Bible study and placed behind bars.
In June 2014, while incarcerated, he was interrogated on five occasions for four hours each. Authorities then added 18 new charges against the then 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 of that year, 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.
Irani was declared guilty by Judge Asel Al-Hosseyn, along with two other leaders with the Church of Iran, Abdolreza Ali-Haghnejad and Reza Rabbani, but his additional six-year sentence was overturned upon appeal in December 2014.
On Tuesday, reports emerged that Irani had been freed.
“Under Iranian law prisoners can be released conditionally for good behavior once they have served more than half of their sentence, although this is subject to the agreement of prison authorities and a judge,” The Christian Messenger outlines.
“In 2015, prison authorities agreed to Pastor Irani’s conditional release; however, a judge disagreed and he remained in jail,” it states. “The Iranian authorities also had the option of releasing Pastor Irani in September 2016, but opted to enforce his complete sentence.”
Persecution watch groups both applauded the news of Irani’s release and scolded the Iranian government for its treatment of Christians.
“Release International is delighted that Pastor Irani has finally been set free. We have been campaigning for this for years,” said CEO Paul Robinson in a statement.
“CSW welcomes Pastor Irani’s release from prison following his unjust arrest and conviction on false charges,” also remarked Mervyn Thomas of Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
“The continuing systematic harassment and imprisonment of Christians and other religious minorities is in violation of Iran’s commitments under its constitution and the international covenants to which it is party,” he said. “We urge the international community to continue to press Iran to uphold its obligations to respect the right to freedom of religion or belief of every religious community within its borders. No one should suffer as Pastor Irani has done, simply for following their conscience and belief.”
Irani had reportedly been beaten while incarcerated, and suffered a bleeding ulcer and herniated disc, as well as failing eyesight. He also had been pressured to recant his faith in Christ, but persevered.