Today (28 February) a verdict was issued by Branch 34 of Tehran’s Appeal Court overturning the convictions of nine Christian converts from Rasht.
The nine – Abdolreza (Matthias) Haghnejad, Khalil Daeghanpour, Hossein Kadivar, Kamal Naamanian, Mohammad Vafadar, Mohammad (Sharooz) Eslamdoust, Babak Hosseinzadeh, Mehdi Khatibi and Behnam Akhlaghi – were initially arrested at their homes over several weeks in January and February 2019. On 24 July 2019 they were each convicted of endangering state security and promoting Zionism and sentenced to five years’ prison.
Five of the converts (Matthias, Sharooz, Babak, Behnam and Mehdi) were immediately transferred to Evin Prison in Tehran after a disagreement over their lawyer. The others were released on bail until the sentences were upheld on appeal in February 2020 and they were also summoned to Evin prison. In August 2021 Matthias was transferred to Anzali Prison, closer to Rasht and more convenient for family visits.
In a surprise development, on 3 November 2021, the Supreme Court ordered a review of their sentences on the basis that promoting Christianity and “Zionist evangelism” in private homes is not an example of “gathering and collusion against internal or external security” as decided in the original verdict. Additionally, this case is not considered to meet the definition of the establishment of groups aiming to disrupt national security as defined by Articles 499 and 500 of the penal code. Furthermore, according to this legal statement, promoting Christianity and establishing a house church are not considered crimes.
The review took place on 22 February and the judge announced today that there is no legal reason for these people to be convicted for gathering in a house church. In addition, since the defendants consider themselves obedient to the laws and government of their country according to the order represented in the Bible, they are acquitted of any crime. The decision states: “a sentence of criminal conviction requires judicial certainty and conclusive evidence of guilt, and members of society cannot be convicted on the basis of speculation and sentenced to imprisonment” and “the defendants, according to the teachings of Christianity, worshiped and praised in the house-church, and there was no positive evidence to validate the crime of acting against the security of the country in the case.”
Iranian Christians are delighted with this decision, but call for prayer for Matthias who faces a harsh six-year prison sentence for “acting against the security of the country by forming a group and propagating Christianity outside the church and in the house church and giving information to the enemies of Islam” after an appeal decision rejecting the accusation dating from 2014 was overturned, and for Babak and Behnam who have recently been charged with “propaganda against the state” in relation to video calls they made for Christian converts to be freely allowed to gather for worship.
Iranian Christians praise God for this verdict that upholds the rights of Christian converts in Iran and request prayer that:
- The charges against Matthias, Babak and Behnam will be dropped
- God will bless the judge for his courage in deciding against the violation of the rights of these converts
- Iran will consistently uphold human rights, especially with regard to freedom of religion or belief