The outside of the Evin prison in Tehran. Among numerous (political) prisoners, there are also Christians held here. Photo: Flickr/ SabzPhoto
The outside of the Evin prison in Tehran. As well as numerous political prisoners, Christians are also held here. (Photo: Flickr/ SabzPhoto)

Two Iranian Christians in the southern city of Shiraz have been sentenced to eight years in prison for “action against national security”, proselytising and holding “house-church” meetings.

Eskander Rezaie and Soroush Saraei, who have both spent time in prison before, will appeal their sentences, according to Christian advocacy group Middle East Concern.

Saraei, pastor of the Church of Shiraz, was also charged with “forgery” – for providing letters to students who did not want to attend Islamic studies classes.

During the same hearing, a Christian woman, Zahra Norouzi Kashkouli, was also given a prison sentence – of one year – for “being a member of a group working against the system”, according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

Ebrahim Firouzi

Rezaie and Saraei were re-arrested in July last year, having previously served time in prison for “acting against national security” and “propaganda against the order of the system”. Both men were first arrested, alongside five other Christians, during a raid on a prayer meeting in October 2012. Saraei was sentenced to two and a half years in prison and Rezaie to one year.

The UN’s Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Asma Jahangir, last year expressed her concern about the treatment of Iranian prisoners. She referenced 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.

‘Death sentence’

Meanwhile a group of 100 – mostly Christian – Iranians, who have been waiting in Austria for the past year to be relocated to the US, could be sent back to Iran as early as next week.

The resettlement was supposed to take place under an existing US law to help Iranian Christians, Jews and Baha’is who were at risk in their home country, but this was put on hold.

Human-rights activists warn this could make them a target for further persecution, especially at a time when nationwide protests against the government has caused a major clampdown on dissidents.

Nina Shea, an international human rights lawyer at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, told the Washington Free Beacon: “These deportations, during a human-rights crackdown in Iran no less, could be a death sentence for these persecuted Christian and other minorities.”

However, most of the Christian asylum seekers are of Armenian and Assyrian background – members of Iran’s recognised religious minorities and as such allowed to practise their faith and hold services, provided they are not in the Farsi language and provided they do not invite ethnic Iranians or evangelise. Religious minorities in Iran are classified into two categories: recognised and unrecognised. Unrecognised minorities are individuals who were previously Muslim and chose to leave Islam. All ethnic Iranians are considered Muslim by birth, whether or not they practise the faith.

The US State Department last week kept Iran on its list of ‘Countries of Particular Concern’ – for nations that have “engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing and egregious violation of religious freedom”.

Iran is number 10 on the newly released 2018 Open Doors World Watch List of 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian. The level of persecution there is categorised as “extreme”.