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Iranian pastor freed from prison

Iranian pastor Behnam Irani has been released from prison after being jailed for six years for leading a house church and sharing his faith


Iranian pastor Behnam Irani has been released from prison after being jailed for six years for leading a house church and sharing his faith – ‘offences’ that Iran has portrayed as crimes against national security.

Partners of Release International have confirmed that Behnam Irani has finally been freed. However, he is said to be in poor health following his ordeal in Ghezal Hesar prison, reputedly one of the toughest jails in Iran.

‘Release International is delighted that Pastor Irani has finally been set free. We have been campaigning for this for years,’ says Paul Robinson, the CEO of the charity which supports persecuted Christians around the world.

‘However, our partners report that 200 other prisoners remain in jail in Iran because of their faith – a number have been arrested over the past year. Like Behnam Irani, many of these Christian prisoners have been beaten, abused and threatened.

Earlier this month, three Iranian Christians were sentenced to 80 lashes for taking communion wine. And like Behnam Irani, they face charges of crimes ‘against national security’.

It is illegal for a Muslim to drink alcohol in Iran and these Christians are converts from Muslim backgrounds. These charges reflect the state position that once a Muslim, always a Muslim.

‘Why should Christians be whipped for taking communion?’ asks Paul Robinson. ‘Release calls on Iran to give its citizens freedom of religion, and to stop confusing that most basic of human freedoms – freedom to choose your faith – with state security.’

Pastor Behnam Irani, who is 43, was jailed in 2011 for leading a Church of Iran congregation in Karaj. He was put in a cell with violent offenders, without even enough room to lie down.

He has been badly beaten behind bars by his captors and other prisoners. He suffered a bleeding ulcer and herniated disc and his eyesight began to fail. He was warned he would not leave prison alive because of his faith.

Behnam Irani was due to be released on Oct 18 2011, but was told he would have to serve another five year suspended sentence for continuing to hold church services while on bail.

Pastor Irani is now expected to be reunited with his wife, Kristina, an Armenian, and his two children, 11 year old Rebecca, and his younger son, Adriel.

There is a risk the pastor could still be charged with apostasy – converting from Islam – which carries the death sentence. The Appeal Court called for him to be tried for apostasy in 2008.

Despite pledges of reform by President Rouhani, Iranian officials continue to make group arrests, often targeting evangelical house groups.

Repression has increased since 2010 when Ayatollah Khamenei branded house churches a threat to national security. Christians are often accused of ‘undermining national security’.

In Iran, freedom for all faiths other than Shia Islam is limited, despite constitutional guarantees of religious liberty. Evangelising Muslims is illegal.

Christians make up just half of one per cent of the population. Most are discriminated against in education, employment and property ownership.

Many of Iran’s Christians are ethnic Armenians or Assyrians. To limit the spread of the faith, many churches have been closed or restricted to conducting services in Armenian or Assyrian. This has driven churches underground.

Most Christians in Iran now meet in private homes. Prominent figures such as pastors may come under the scrutiny of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Many are forced out of the country.

Christians from a Muslim background pay a particularly high price. A number of Iranian Christians who were raised as Muslims remain in detention. Some suffer from severe ill-health due to lack of medical treatment and beatings from prison staff and other inmates.

Yet despite the persecution, Iran’s church is growing.

Through its international network of missions Release International serves persecuted Christians in more than 30 countries around the world, by: supporting pastors and Christian prisoners, and their families; supplying Christian literature and Bibles; and working for justice.

Chronology of the Behnam Irani case, courtesy Middle East Concern

Behnam Irani of the self-styled “Church of Iran” was given a five-year suspended sentence in 2008, after he was charged with action against national security.

He was re-arrested in 2010 during a house church service, and in May 2011 he was summoned to serve a one-year prison sentence for new charges of action against national security, to which the suspended five-year sentence was later added.

Behnam was detained in Ghezel Hesar Prison in Karaj, and suffered serious health issues, many related to physical abuse he received at the hands of fellow prisoners. On 22nd February 2014 he was taken to hospital for an operation to staunch bleeding from the stomach and colon.

In September 2014 he was charged with “Mofsed-e-filarz” – a capital crime translated as “spreading corruption on Earth”. The Mofsed-e-filarz charge was dropped later that month and replaced by charges of “action against national security” and “creating a network to overthrow the system”, and he was put in solitary confinement.

On 19th October 2014 Behnam was sentenced to a further six years in prison and exile to Zabol on the Afghanistan border. On 9th December 2014 the additional charges and sentence were dropped following an appeal.

In August 2016 Behnam was informed that he was due for release in October. He was released from prison yesterday evening (17th October).

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