Currently at least 20 Christians are jailed in Iran because their faith was deemed a threat to the Islamic republic’s national security. Of the more than 100 Iranian believers imprisoned since 2012, all have faced similar charges.
But a recent decision by a Supreme Court justice gives hope to them all.
“Merely preaching Christianity … through family gatherings [house churches] is not a manifestation of gathering and collusion to disrupt the security of the country, whether internally or externally,” stated Seyed-Ali Eizadpanah.
“The promotion of Christianity and the formation of a house church is not criminalized in law.”
Two years ago, nine converts from the non-Trinitarian Church of Iran in Rasht, 200 miles northeast of Tehran near the Caspian Sea, were arrested in raids on their homes and church.
Sentenced to a five-year prison term in October 2019, Abdolreza Ali Haghnejad, Shahrooz Eslamdoust, Behnam Akhlaghi, Babak Hosseinzadeh, Mehdi Khatibi, Khalil Dehghanpour, Hossein Kadivar, Kamal Naamanian, and Mohammad Vafadar are now eligible for release.
Eizadpanah’s ruling, announced November 24, is “unprecedented,” according to multiple Iranian Christians and international advocates.
“The judge’s main argument is what we have been saying for years,” said Mansour Borji, advocacy director for Article 18, a UK-based organization promoting freedom of religion in Iran that tallied the cases noted above from available public records.
“But it astonished us to hear it at such a high level.”
It also cuts against the grain of international understanding. The US State Department’s latest religious freedom report on Iran described proselytization and conversion as punishable by death. Reza Esfandiari, an Iranian independent analyst also based in the UK, said execution would not be a normal punishment but efforts of local pastors to convert Muslims were “definitely illegal.”
“The ruling simply reflects that private belief is not a public or political issue,” he said, drawing attention to Article 23 of Iran’s constitution, “and that the state should not concern itself with house church worship and preaching.”
Public witness, he said, is not permitted.
Borji disputes this interpretation. Iran is signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which protect the freedom to propagate one’s faith.
“Iran cannot pick and choose between the parts of freedom of religion, saying you can exercise it only privately but not together,” he said. “Our rights are enshrined in the law, at least on paper.”
The complication comes through Article 167 of the nation’s constitution, which subjects all laws to Islamic sharia—as interpreted by a judge.
There is some diversity of opinion. Contrary to the ruling orthodoxy, now-deceased Grand Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, once in line to be the nation’s supreme leader, said in 2005 that the charge of apostasy does not apply in the case of sincere investigation of Christianity.
Such clerical rulings have given lawyers leeway to argue the case of converts before sympathetic judges. The nine Church of Iran defendants, however, were sentenced by one nicknamed the “Judge of Death” for his harsh treatment of prisoners of conscience.
International advocates caution against attributing too much power to a single verdict. The case now returns to a different judge within the revolutionary court system, who may disregard the Supreme Court justice’s argument.
“The Iranian government has a history of not following its own rules,” said Hormoz Shariat, president of Iran Alive Ministries, which runs Shabakeh 7, a Farsi-language Christian satellite TV network. “Very likely this decision will not really help Christians.”
Specifically tasked with national security cases, the courts of the revolutionary guard often adjudicate behind closed doors. (Overall, Iran uses an inquisitorial legal system as in France versus an adversarial system as in the UK and the US, and judges play an active role in investigating cases.)
“This is unprecedented, but it remains to be seen how the revolutionary courts will evaluate,” stated Middle East Concern. “It is quite likely that a review will see the sentences reduced—but this is not enough.
“These men should be acquitted of any crime. That would be a game changer for the Christian converts in Iran.”
Iranian human rights lawyer Hossein Ahmadiniaz explained that if the Supreme Court ruling is not followed, the defendants will have the right to appeal. If their sentence is still upheld, they can refer the case back to the Supreme Court, to the same judge who issued the first decision.
Should Eizadpanah insist on his initial ruling, it becomes binding for the lower court on that case and advisory for other courts with similar cases. Should he change his opinion, the final judicial step would be to refer their case to the Supreme Court’s full body of about 50 justices. By majority, they would then issue a vote of judicial precedent—with the power of law.
In the past, the Supreme Court has ruled to compel the government to issue identification cards for the Baha’i community listing their faith. But it has also upheld the death penalty in a case of adultery, as well as against a journalist whose writings inspired antigovernment protests in 2017.
And last week, Borji said, a different judge in the Supreme Court upheld national security charges against two Christian converts.
Iran’s negotiations with the West over its nuclear program may have factored into Eizadpanah’s decision in the case of the nine Rasht believers, Borji speculated. But if so, it was likely pushed by a brave campaign launched from within Iran.
Two of the nine defendants penned an open letter to Iranian authorities.
“The government has hung a heavy yoke of persecution around [our] necks,” wrote Hosseinzadeh and Akhlaghi, joined by Saheb Fadaie, a house church pastor already serving a six-year sentence. “Day by day, this country is regressing and becoming ever more depleted of ideological diversity.”
They referenced Article 13 of the Islamic republic’s constitution, noting that the rights given to religious minorities make no mention of Armenian or Assyrian ethnicity. Officially tallied at 117,700 people in the last census, these historic Orthodox Christian communities receive three seats in Iran’s parliament and are allowed to perform their rites and ceremonies in their own languages.
The Persian believers also released video testimony.
“The churches that remain open are accessible for only certain people—those born into Christian families—and not to us [converts],” said Hosseinzadeh. “Where am I to worship after these five years?”
Akhlaghi argued similarly.
“If attending a house church is considered a crime, and [Farsi-speaking] churches are closed off,” he said, “how and where should I perform my religious rites?”
Joining them in solidarity was Mary Mohammadi, a 22-year-old in Iran who has been repeatedly jailed for her faith and was expelled from her university education.
Standing in front of a closed Seventh-day Adventist church, she joined the #place2worship hashtag campaign and its video advocacy.
“To have a formal and specific place dedicated as a church is not a privilege that a person or an institution or even the government should be able to determine, saying which group of Christians can have a church and which group cannot,” she said.
“Having a formal church building is an inalienable right.”
Esfandiari recognized a legal lacuna.
“The situation for Iranians who are ethnically Persian needs to be clarified by the law,” he told CT. “The issue now comes as to how to legally recognize Iranian Protestants and Catholics.”
Esfandiari estimates their number to be about 100,000. Some foreign Christian organizations count them as few as 10,000. Open Doors—which ranks Iran No. 8 on its World Watch List of countries where it is hardest to follow Jesus—tallies 800,000.
Rather than a legal loophole, however, Borji attributes the difficulties of converts to government policy. The Supreme Court ruling gives hope that Iran may be beginning a process of internal review. He suspects the revolutionary court will accept Eizadpanah’s decision, as Tehran attempts to clean up its image before the world.
“But this will only be a painkiller for a serious malady,” Borji said. “We shouldn’t be overly optimistic that this represents a radical change toward Christians.”