Christian couple in Iran win short reprieve from jail

Author: Sebastian Milbank

Publication Date: 18/6/2021

Source: The Tablet

A Christian couple in Iran have been given a 30-day reprieve from a jail sentence after being found guilty of leading an illegal house church.

Homayoun Zhaveh, who is 62 and suffers from Parkinson’s, and his wife Sara Ahmadi, 42 were sentenced in November 2020 to two and 11 years in imprisonment respectively.

While the traditional Armenian and Assyrian Orthodox Churches in Iran are officially recognised and tolerated by the regime, conversion from Islam is illegal, forcing converts to worship secretly in informal house churches. These churches are treated as subversive organisations by the Iranian government and membership of them is a crime in its own right.

The couple’s assets have been frozen and they face possible forfeiture of their property.

They were originally arrested by agents from Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence whilst on holiday with Christian friends in the town of Amol, by the Caspian Sea. The group was questioned but the other Christians were released and the pair were then taken for interrogation, with Sara Ahmadi being held for 67 days, 33 of which were in solitary confinement.

The couple were told to appear at Tehran’s Evin Prison on 15 June after the failure of their appeal.

They presented themselves at the jail, to discover that they were being given a 30-day reprieve. They are relaunching their appeal, but their fate remains uncertain, and dependent on the whims of Iran’s court system and security establishment.

Over the past decades many Christian missionaries have won converts in Iran, possibly reflecting growing discontent with the violence and oppression of Iran’s theocratic government.

Unlike the officially tolerated Christian denominations in Iran, many of the missionaries are preaching and worshiping in Persian. Nobody knows for sure how many Christians truly live in Iran, due to the harsh legal sanctions against converts and underground churches, but authorities regard the growth of Christianity in the country as a serious threat, with Persian language services and bibles especially seen as an attack on Iran’s Islamic identity.

The operations of the Ministry of Intelligence are framed in terms of security rather than simple law enforcement, and Iranian judges may fear challenging the cases it brings before them.

Although Sara’s sentence was lowered to eight years on appeal, the couple’s situation remains grim, especially Homayoun’s, as due to his age and advanced Parkinson’s his health could be gravely endangered in prison.

Neither of them has received or been offered a Covid-19 vaccine, and prisons have proved one of the riskiest environments in terms of transmission. The couple’s remaining hope is that the Iranian Supreme Court could overturn their sentences or at least allow Homayoun to receive a non-custodial sentence.

Another serious concern is that not only do the couple face the ordinary dangers of a jail sentence, but they are due to be incarcerated in Evin prison, an especially notorious Iranian jail.

Built in the time of the Shah, the prison swiftly acquired a reputation for housing opponents of the regime, with one wing nicknamed “Evin University” due to the number of intellectuals imprisoned there for primarily political crimes. To this day it is the favoured location to house political prisoners, and has become infamous for the solitary confinement, rape, torture and neglect of prisoners over the years.

“Giving a 62-year-old man with advanced Parkinson’s a jail sentence is shocking and callous,” says Open Doors UK CEO Henrietta Blyth. “Worse, he is only receiving this sentence because he belongs to a church.

“Sadly Iran has a track record of systematically persecuting Persian-speaking Christians, whatever their age or health.”

Mansour Borji, the advocacy director of Article 18, a non-profit which advocates for religious freedom in Iran said: “We have launched this petition to call on the Iranian authorities to overturn this cruel and unjust sentence. We also call on the international community to be the voice for this Christian couple, and to apply maximum pressure on the Iranian regime until it ceases to persecute innocent citizens like Homayoun and Sara for the peaceful practice of their beliefs.”

The couple’s lawyer said: “My clients have always insisted that they haven’t engaged in any actions against national security, nor do they harbour any animosity or hostility towards the government.” He added that Homayoun’s condition would prevent him from partaking in any anti-security actions, even were he to wish to do so.”


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