An Iranian pastor serving a six-year prison term has failed in his appeal against a further sentence of 74 lashes and an additional year in jail – for the alleged possession in his cell of two litres of alcohol. This latest news about Farshid Fathi was first reported by Iran-focused Mohabat News on 30th May.
Middle East Concern (MEC) reports that the alcohol was found on Fathi’s prison ward in April 2014 during a raid by guards when he was in Evin prison. MEC says that security officials attributed the alcohol to Farshid, who strongly denies this claim.
Such cases are usually addressed by a judicial court but Fathi’s case was submitted to the Revolutionary Court. Fathi, who has been in prison since 2010, denied the accusation when he appeared in the court in December 2014, after he had been transferred to Rajaei-Shahr prison in August 2014.
His lawyer’s appeal has now failed to overturn the original ‘extra’ sentence from December.
About 60 other Christians, many belonging to house churches in Tehran and other cities, were arrested at the same time as Fathi on the day after Christmas in 2010. Most of those have now been released.
The governor of Tehran, Morteza Tamadon, on January 4, 2011 described the detained Christians as “extremists” who “penetrate the body of Islam like corrupt and deviant people”. He added that they were trying to establish “an extreme form of Christianity like the Taliban and Wahhabis in Islam”.
Fathi, who is a 35 year old father of two, was imprisoned without trial in Evin prison. After 15 months of uncertainty he was tried in January 2012, being accused of “action against the regime’s security, being in contact with foreign organisations, and religious propaganda” according to a source. Details of his court trial have not been published.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Seyyed Ali Khamenei had made a speech in October 2010 saying that house churches should be dealt with. A new wave of surveillance and arrests against Christians followed soon after, with leaders of house church groups such as Farshid Fathi especially singled out for longer detentions. Born into a Muslim family, Fathi became a Christian at the age of 17 and at the time of his arrest in 2010 he was working full time as a pastor and leader of house churches.
Fathi is serving his sentence alongside another man, Alireza Seyyadian, who was also imprisoned for six years. Seyyadian was arrested as he was trying to leave the country for a Persian New Year vacation in March 2012, and was also transferred with Fathi to Rajaei-Shahr prison.
Seyyadian is a member of a group known as Church of Iran, which holds a non-Trinitarian theology. He was sentenced to 90 lashes and six years’ imprisonment for acting against national security through collusion, gathering and propagating against the Islamic regime.
World Watch Monitor has reported on how the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office has previously labelled Fathi’s prison conditions as “harsh”.
He suffered a fractured foot and toe after being beaten up by security officials during the raid in which the alcohol was found and attributed to him.
Estimates from evidence provided by the American Center for Law and Justice, Article 18 and Middle East Concern, suggest that in May 2015 there were 90 people detained in Iranian prisons on account of their Christian faith and practice.
Several UN special reports and resolutions have condemned the violation of the rights of religious minorities. Prison authorities have sometimes discriminated against Christian detainees.
In Rajaei-Shahr prison, for instance, Christian prisoners were refused permission to participate in the prison Christmas celebrations.
Other prisoners have also had to face additional sentences. Ebrahim Firouzi had been due for release on 13th January, but has been kept in prison and was retried on 8th March of charges of ‘acting against national security, gathering, and collusion’.
According to the 2015 World Watch List by Open Doors International, a charity that supports Christians who face hostilities because of their faith, Iran ranks seventh (up two points from last year) in the top ten countries where Christians are persecuted.
The main driver of persecution in Iran, it says, is ‘Islamic extremism’; Christians from an Islamic background are especially targeted. Increasing numbers of Farsi [Persian] speaking churches have been forced to close; some of which have been there for both decades and centuries. This is a development that has not been seen in the history of the church in Iran, stated the World Watch List.
“Expectations were high when President Rouhani took office in 2013. However, his powers are limited and in the short run, no concrete changes are expected for religious minorities” says Open Doors.
Mohabat News reports that even Sunni Muslims cannot enjoy the least amount of freedom. As with Christians and other religious minorities, Sunnis are not allowed to build a mosque of their own in Tehran, the capital.