Two Iranian Christians have been released from the country’s notorious Evin prison, after fire, explosions and gunfire claimed at least eight lives.
They are Naser Navard Gol-Tapeh (believed to be 61) and Fariba Dalir (53).
Naser Navard Gol-Tapeh was released mid-sentence on October 17 after being pardoned by the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. Fariba Dalir was set free the following day.
It’s not known whether their release is linked with the recent fighting at Evin prison, where Christians are being held along with political prisoners.
According to state media, eight prisoners were killed at the prison. This is in the wake of ongoing unrest in the country, where the situation remains highly volatile.
UK-based Release International supports persecuted Christians around the world. Its partners say, ‘It has been a relief that most Christians [detained in Evin] have been able to contact their families and assure them that they are okay.’
Says CEO Paul Robinson: ‘Their release is an answer to prayer. Release International has been praying for Navard and other Christian prisoners in Iran throughout the summer at major events such as New Wine.
‘Release International has long been urging full freedom of religion in Iran. The Iranian authorities should allow their citizens to choose their own faith, and should release all prisoners of faith.’
Naser Navard Gol-Tapeh was set free from Evin prison midway through a ten-year sentence for running a house church, according to Middle East Concern. He has now returned home.
Fariba Dalir was arrested with five other Christians in July 2021 and held in solitary confinement for 38 days.
She was sentenced to five years in prison, for ‘acting against national security by establishing and leading an Evangelical Christian church.’ Her sentence was later reduced to two years after the judge acknowledged he had mistakenly believed Fariba had a previous criminal conviction.
House churches are illegal in Iran, and those who set them up or join them are often treated as enemies of the state, working to undermine Iran’s Islamic revolution.
Mike Ansari, of network associate Heart4Iran adds: ‘We are excited to see that Navard has been set free. There has been a lot of advocacy for his release behind the scenes. And we pray that other Iranian Christians who are being held will be released too. Freedom of religion is a basic human right. We pray that it will be upheld in Iran.’
Naser Navard Gol-Tapeh was arrested in 2016 when 30 intelligence officers raided an engagement party near Tehran.
He was arrested along with three Azerbaijani Christians. They were held in solitary confinement for two months and subjected to intense interrogation. All were charged with ‘illegal gathering, collusion and evangelism’.
In September 2016, they were transferred to shared cells in Evin’s Ward 350, and were later temporarily released on bail. The three Azeris were allowed to leave Iran, forfeiting their bail.
At his trial in May 2017 Naser was charged with ‘acting against national security through the formation and establishment of an illegal church organisation in his home’.
A report by the Ministry of Intelligence claimed Naser was working to undermine the state by establishing an ‘illegal house church network’. But that evidence was withheld from Naser’s lawyer, who insisted: ‘All [the Christian] meetings were strictly focused on faith and worship and nothing else.’
The judge sentenced Naser to ten years in prison and the courts refused his repeated requests for a retrial. His appeal against his sentence in 2017 was rejected.
Naser was sent to Evin Prison, where he was denied medical treatment for a severe gum infection and was in great pain. His family feared he could lose all his teeth if the authorities continued to deny him treatment.
Protests and deaths
Widespread protests are continuing in Iran over the enforced wearing of head covering by Iranian women, required by law in the Islamic Republic. Some commentators view the unrest as the beginnings of a revolution.
According to the Norwegian-based Iran Human Rights group security forces have killed 215 people, including 27 children.
The Iranian authorities deny this and say the protests are being stirred up by foreign powers.
Christians in Iran are often accused of colluding with foreign forces to undermine the Islamic revolution. It is illegal in Iran to hold church services in the Farsi national language.
A partner of Release International says: ‘The overall goal is to eliminate the Persian-speaking church and only allow Christian minority groups to operate.’
80 lashes for communion
Evangelising Muslims is illegal and arrest and imprisonment are common. Christians have been given 80 lashes for taking communion wine, because they continue to be regarded as Muslims, for whom alcohol is forbidden.
Iran regards all ethnic Persians are Muslims. Converting from Islam is an act of betrayal, not just against the faith but against the state.
Conversion – apostasy – is punishable by death for men, or life imprisonment for women, although the death sentence is rarely carried out.
Iran has long been a country of concern to Release International, which supports persecuted Christians around the world.
Under Islam, politics and religion are inseparable. And as Iran has become progressively more hard-line in its approach, the Church has been swept up in the crackdown against political opponents.
Persecution further intensified in 2015, driving many Christian leaders out of the country.
To limit the spread of the Christian faith, the authorities have closed many churches, driving congregations underground.
Most Christians in Iran now meet in private homes. Meetings are closely monitored by the Revolutionary Guard, especially the activities of Christian leaders.
Prominent figures such as pastors often come under the scrutiny of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Many have been forced out of the country.
Converts who remain in Iran face pressure from the state and from their families.
Says a Release International partner: ‘If a Muslim is baptised as a Christian he or she can end up in prison for a year, while the person who performs the baptism can be jailed for four to five years.’
Before the Iranian Revolution it is estimated there were only a few hundred Christians in the country from a Muslim background. Today, it is commonplace to hear reports of revival taking place in Iran, and beyond the borders of Iran where the Iranian diaspora have fled.
Despite the persecution, the Christian faith is spreading rapidly among Iranians, in their own country and where they are scattered around the world.
A survey by GAMAAN, a secular Dutch organisation, estimated as many as 1.5 per cent of the population now identify as Christian. And a number of Christian ministries estimate there are now more than a million Christians in Iran.
Release International partner Lazarus Yeghnazar of 222 Ministries says: ‘In the last 40 years, amid severe persecution of the church, only matched in ferocity by the Emperor Nero, more Muslims in Iran have come to love and surrender to Christ than the combined number in the last 14 centuries.’
‘Freedom of religion’
Release International has been supporting the families of Christian prisoners in Iran, training house churches and supplying Christian literature.
CEO Paul Robinson adds: ‘Galatians 5:1 tells us “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” Let’s pray for the church in Iran that they will know freedom of worship, and that they will shine like beacons in their country at this hour.’
Through its international network of missions, Release International is active in some 25 countries around the world, supporting pastors, Christian prisoners and their families; supplying Christian literature and Bibles, and working for justice.