Iranian authorities have ordered a pastor of the Church of Iran denomination to return to prison to begin serving a five-year sentence for “sectarian activities”, indicating that Christian persecution may escalate after a brief respite due to the spread of COVID-19 which is leading authorities to temporarily release many people from prison.
Pastor Amin Khaki is now in prison in Karaj, the capital of Alborz province near Tehran, after the summons last Wednesday, UK group Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported.
Pastor Khaki, along with two other Iranian Christians, Milad Goudarzi and Alireza Nourmohammadi, were tried in Karaj in June. They were charged under a new amendment to the Iranian Penal Code known as Article 500-bis, which deals with “sectarian activities”.
CSW said the three men were not allowed to be represented by their lawyer during the trial. They were each sentenced to five years in prison after being convicted of “propaganda against the Islamic regime”.
Khaki has also been arrested, charged and convicted previously. CSW said, adding that the three are appealing the verdict.
CSW founder and chairman Mervyn Thomas said Iran’s actions “sent another negative message to religious minorities in Iran and essentially amounted to a criminalization of Christianity.”
Demanding that the three be released, Thomas said: “We refute the charges against Pastor Khaki and his colleagues. “
In another case last week, Iranian authorities also summoned Christian converts Sasan Khosravi and Habib Heydari to return to Bushehr central prison to serve the remainder of their one-year sentence for “spreading against the Islamic Republic by making the promotion of Christianity, ”Article 18 reported.
The two, who began their terms in February, had been on leave since March.
Ruled by Islamic law, Iran ranks ninth among the worst countries in the world for persecution of Christians by Open Doors USA, as the regime has relentlessly persecuted Muslims who have converted to Christianity.
Last February, Iranian Christian Dabrina Bet Tamraz spoke at a Family Research Council roundtable on religious freedom in Iran.
“Today there is no free church. There is no such thing as a free evangelical church, nor a free Pentecostal church, ”she said. “The only churches allowed to operate are Orthodox or Catholic churches with restrictions. They are not allowed to have books in Farsi. They are not even allowed these days to print books in our own language. Any Christian literature or Bible, even in our own language, is not allowed. They are not even allowed to speak to a Farsi person near the church.
Tamraz was among several persecuted believers from around the world who met with President Donald Trump at the U.S. State Department’s ministerial meeting on international religious freedom in 2019.
“With the Revolutionary Guards, they arrest all the participants. They loot Christian gatherings at homes, restaurants, wherever they meet, ”Tamraz said. “They arrest them and confiscate their property, their homes. Most of these Christians are subjected to intensive and often abusive interrogation. They are often tortured physically and mentally.
Despite the persecution, Tamraz and other panelists agreed that the underground church in Iran is one of the fastest growing religious movements in the world.
According to Open Doors USA, there are approximately 800,000 Christians in Iran, almost double the persecution watchdog estimate of 450,000 in 2016.