Iranian schoolgirls. (World Watch Monitor)
Iranian schoolgirls. (World Watch Monitor)

Christian children in two large Iranian cities have been told to either study Shia Islam or leave school.

The children are members of the non-Trinitarian ‘Church of Iran’ denomination in the northern city of Rasht, near the Caspian Sea, and the historical southern city of Shiraz, respectively.

Until recently the children were exempt from studying Islam provided they could present a signed letter from their denomination exempting them, but the authorities are now rejecting the letter on the grounds the denomination is an “illegal organisation”, according to advocacy organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).

The Iranian constitution allows for children from minority religious groups to access religious instruction designed by members of their own faith community and approved by the Ministry of Education, says CSW.

Sources told CSW “the message is clear: convert or leave”.

Earlier this year, four members of the Church of Iran denomination in Rasht were each sentenced to ten years in prison.

From left: Saheb Fadaie, Youcef Nadarkhani, Yasser Mossayebzadeh and Mohammad Reza Omidi.
From left: Saheb Fadaie, Youcef Nadarkhani, Yasser Mossayebzadeh and Mohammad Reza Omidi.

Yasser Mossayebzadeh, Saheb Fadaie, Mohammad Reza Omidi and Youcef Nadarkhani are appealing against their sentences. Their hearing is scheduled for 4 October in Tehran, and, according to CSW, will be heard by a judge who has overseen the sentencing of at least 16 Christians to between five and 15 years’ imprisonment, and who has been “accused of having overseen miscarriages of justice, and whose name appears on a list of Iranian individuals targeted for financial sanctions in the United Kingdom”.

Judge Ahmad Zargar “was amongst several Iranian officials deemed responsible or complicit in serious human rights violations in 2012, and was one of six judges accused in 2014 of having lost judicial impartiality and overseeing miscarriages of justice in trials involving journalists, lawyers, political activists and members of Iran’s ethnic and religious minorities”, says CSW.

Meanwhile, in Shiraz, two Church of Iran members were rearrested in July, having previously served time in prison for “acting against national security” and “propaganda against the order of the system”.

Soroush Saraei and Eskandar Rezaie were first arrested, alongside five other Christians, during a raid on a prayer meeting in October 2012. Saraie was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison and Rezaie one year.

Following his re-arrest, Saraie has been transferred to a “notorious” detention centre, according to CSW.

The UN’s Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Asma Jahangir, recently expressed her concern about the treatment of prisoners in a prison in Karaj, Tehran’s sister city, where at least one Christian – Ebrahim Firouzi – is currently being held and recently went on hunger strike to protest against Iran’s treatment of Christians. Firouzi was recently included on a poster drawing attention to the plight of such prisoners.

Ms Jahangir also called for an overhaul of Iran’s judicial system, saying that without such a reform, “improving the human rights situation in Iran will be impossible”.

Amnesty International last year accused Iran of “cruel” denial of medical care in its prisons, referencing the case of another Christian, Maryam Naghash Zargaran, who also undertook several hunger strikes to protest against her being denied access to the medical care she needed for long-standing health issues.

On a handful of occasions, Naghash Zargaran was allowed to leave prison temporarily to receive treatment, but each time forced to return before it could be completed. She then had her sentence extended by six weeks to make up for the time she had spent outside prison.