Iranian House Churches Not Illegal, Supreme Court Says …… | News and reports

Currently, at least 20 Christians are imprisoned in Iran because their faith was considered a threat to the national security of the Islamic Republic. Of the hundred or so Iranian believers imprisoned since 2012, all have faced similar charges.

But a recent ruling by a Supreme Court justice gives them all hope.

“Simply preach Christianity … through family reunions [house churches] is not a manifestation of gathering and collusion to disrupt the security of the country, whether inside or outside, ”said the judge.

“The promotion of Christianity and the formation of a house church are not criminalized by law.”

Two years ago, nine converts from the Non-Trinitarian Church of Iran in Rasht, 200 miles northeast of Tehran, near the Caspian Sea, were arrested during raids on their homes and church.

Sentenced to five years in prison in October 2019, Abdolreza Ali Haghnejad, Shahrooz Eslamdoust, Behnam Akhlaghi, Babak Hosseinzadeh, Mehdi Khatibi, Khalil Dehghanpour, Hossein Kadivar, Kamal Naamanian and Mohammad Vafadar are now eligible for release.

The decision, announced on November 24, is “unprecedented”, according to several Iranian Christians and international advocates.

“The judge’s main argument is what we’ve been saying for years,” said Mansour Borji, advocacy director for Article 18, a UK-based organization promoting religious freedom in Iran that has documented the cases mentioned above. on it from the available public folders.

“But it amazed us to hear it at such a high level.”

It also goes against the grain of international understanding. The latest US State Department report on religious freedom in Iran described proselytizing and conversion as punishable by death. Reza Esfandiari, an independent Iranian analyst also based in the UK, said local pastors’ efforts to convert Muslims were “definitely illegal.”

“The ruling simply reflects that private belief is not a public or political issue,” he said, drawing attention to article 23 of the Iranian constitution, “and that the state should not to be concerned with the worship and the preaching of the house churches ”.

Public testimony, he said, is not allowed.

Borji disputes this interpretation. Iran is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which protect the freedom to propagate one’s faith.

“Iran cannot choose between the elements of religious freedom, saying you can only exercise it in private but not together,” he said. “Our rights are enshrined in law, at least on paper. “

The complication comes from article 167 of the country’s constitution, which subjects all laws to Islamic Sharia, as interpreted by a judge.

There is a certain diversity of opinion. Contrary to ruling orthodoxy, the now deceased Grand Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, who was once the nation’s supreme leader, said in 2005 that the charge of apostasy did not apply in cases of sincere inquiry into Christianity.

Such clerical rulings gave lawyers leeway to argue the cases of converts before sympathetic judges. The nine accused of the Church of Iran were however convicted by one of them nicknamed the “judge of death” for his harsh treatment of prisoners of conscience.

International advocates warn against attributing too much power to a single verdict. The case now falls to another judge within the revolutionary justice system, who may ignore the Supreme Court judge’s argument.

“The Iranian government has a habit of not following its own rules,” said Hormoz Shariat, chairman of Iran Alive Ministries, which runs Shabakeh 7, a Christian Farsi-language satellite television network. “Most likely, this decision will not really help Christians.”

Specifically responsible for national security matters, Revolutionary Guard courts often rule behind closed doors. (Overall, Iran uses an inquisitorial justice system like in France versus an adversarial system like in the UK and US, and judges play an active role in investigations.)

“This is unprecedented, but it remains to be seen how the Revolutionary Courts will assess,” Middle East Concern said. “It is highly likely that a review will see the sentences reduced, but it is not enough.

“These men should be acquitted of all crimes. It would be a game-changer for converted Christians in Iran. “

Iranian human rights lawyer Hossein Ahmadiniaz explained that if the Supreme Court’s decision is not followed, the defendants will have the right to appeal. If their sentence is still upheld, they can send the case back to the Supreme Court, to the same judge who rendered the first decision.

If he changed his mind, the last judicial step would be to send the case back to all 50 Supreme Court justices. By majority vote, they would then issue a precedent vote – with the force of law.

In the past, the Supreme Court has ruled to require the government to issue identity cards for the Baha’i community indicating their faith. But he also confirmed the death penalty in an adultery case, as well as against a journalist whose writings inspired anti-government protests in 2017.

And last week, Borji said, another Supreme Court judge upheld the national security charges against two Christian converts.

Iran’s negotiations with the West over its nuclear program may have been factored into the court ruling in the case of the Nine Rasht Believers, Borji speculated. But if so, it was likely prompted by a courageous campaign launched from inside Iran.

Two of the nine defendants wrote an open letter to the Iranian authorities.

“The government has hung a heavy yoke of persecution around [our] cous, ”wrote Hosseinzadeh and Akhlaghi, joined by Saheb Fadaie, a house church pastor already serving a six-year sentence. “Day by day, this country is regressing and impoverishing itself more and more in ideological diversity.

They referred to article 13 of the constitution of the Islamic republic, noting that the rights granted to religious minorities make no mention of the Armenian or Assyrian ethnicity. Officially enumerated at 117,700 people in the last census, these historic Orthodox Christian communities receive three seats in the Iranian parliament and are authorized to perform their rites and ceremonies in their own language.

Persian believers have also posted video testimonies.

“Churches that remain open are only accessible to certain people, those born into Christian families, and not to us. [converts]”Hosseinzadeh said.” Where should I worship after these five years? “

Akhlaghi argued in the same way.

“If attending a house church is considered a crime, and [Farsi-speaking] churches are closed, ”he said,“ how and where should I perform my religious rites?

Mary Mohammadi, a 22-year-old Iranian who has been repeatedly jailed for her faith and expelled from her university studies, joined them in solidarity.

Standing outside a closed Seventh-day Adventist church, she joined the # place2worship hashtag campaign and video advocacy.

“Having a formal and specific place dedicated as a church is not a privilege that a person or an institution or even the government should be able to determine, saying which group of Christians can have a church and which cannot. not, ”she said.

“Having a formal church is an inalienable right. “

Esfandiari recognized a legal loophole.

“The situation of ethnically Persian Iranians must be clarified by law,” he told CT. “The question now arises of how to legally recognize Iranian Protestants and Catholics. “

Esfandiari estimates their number to be around 100,000. Some foreign Christian organizations have only 10,000. Open Doors, which ranks Iran 8th on its world watch list of countries where it is most difficult to follow Jesus, has 800,000.

Rather than a legal loophole, however, Borji attributes the hardships of the converts to government policy. The Supreme Court ruling gives hope that Iran could begin an internal review process. He suspects that the Revolutionary Court will accept the court ruling as Tehran tries to cleanse its image in front of the world.

“But that will only be a pain reliever for serious illness,” Borji said. “We shouldn’t be too optimistic that this represents a radical change towards Christians.”

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