Article 18, an organization promoting religious freedom in Iran with a focus on the Christian community, published news of a remarkable ruling by the Supreme Court in late November. The court found that nine Christian converts serving five-year prison sentences should not have been charged with “conspiracy against national security” for their role in setting up and managing house churches in the country.
The ruling stated: “Merely preaching Christianity, and promoting the ‘Evangelical Zionist sect’, both of which apparently means propagating 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.”
While not statutorily binding, this landmark ruling could also pave the way for the release Behnam Akhlaghi, Babak Hosseinzadeh, Abdolreza Ali Haghnejad, Shahrooz Eslamdoost, Mehdi Khatibi, Khalil Dehghanpour, Hossein Kadivar, Kamal Nomanian and Mohammad Vafadar, who were sentenced in October 2019, following a retrial at the Revolutionary Court. It could also influence future cases brought by the judiciary against Iranian Christians, at least 20 of whom are currently behind bars for their involvement in house churches.
The Targeting of House Churches in Iran
Scores of churches in Iran have been shut down since the Islamic Revolution due to government pressure on priests, administrators and worshippers. House churches set up by Christians as an alternative have repeatedly been attacked and dismantled on the basis that they pose an unexplained threat to “national security”.
The Rev. Mansour Borji, director of Article 18, told IranWire: “Almost all [Iranian] Christians who are currently in prison have cases [against them] open in the Iranian judiciary or have been charged and released on heavy bails, were arrested and accused of forming or attending a house church. Previously, the circumstances were different; until perhaps 15 years ago, their charges were not political or security-related, but they were accused of apostasy."
"The apostasy charge came with serious repercussions for detainees, and tarnished the image of the Islamic Republic in international forums. As a result, the regime’s general approach turned to making political and security accusations against Christian converts, who are generally arrested and tried on trumped-up charges of ‘propaganda against the regime’ and ‘acting against national security’ by forming a house church."
Since the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Rev. Borji says, a number of Christian converts have been summoned to the judicial office at Evin Prison and informed that their release will be conditional on their not attending house churches. “This condition has been met with yet more opposition from the converts, who have asserted their legal right to worship alongside their fellow believers."
There are no accurate figures available on the number of Christians in Islamic Republic’s prison system. Marie Mohammadi, a human rights activist living in Iran, told IranWire that in her view, is precisely so that "the authorities will not be able to properly announce the detention of Christian converts". Advocacy groups can therefore only include the cases they are informed of in their unofficial counts.
What Does the Supreme Court’s Ruling Mean?
The by Branch 28 of the Supreme Court, headed by Seyyed Ali Izadpanah Shahri, sent the nine Christians’ cases back for retrial as well as finding that by itself, “preaching Christianity” and promoting what it called an “evangelical Zionist sect” via house churches could not be regarded as conspiracy against national security. It cited Articles 498 and 499 of the Islamic Penal Code, which govern the formation of groups and societies within the Iranian population.
"This was a unique stand taken in the Iranian judicial system,” says Musa Barzin Khalifehlou, a legal consultant for IranWire. “Unfortunately at this stage it’s not clear whether the verdict is binding. Only a retrial has been agreed and the outcome will only affect those nine people. That is, even if this retrial ultimately leads to their acquittal, it doesn’t mean that in similar cases, the defendants would be acquitted."
On the other hand, Khalifehlou believes, the ruling could become precedent: “If a branch of the Supreme Court has issued a verdict like this, it can be expected that other branches will honor it [in other cases]. This verdict is now a reality and if other branches issue opposing rulings, it is likely that the verdict itself will go to the Supreme Court and become a unified procedure.”
According to Law 471 of the Code of Judicial Procedure, if different rulings are issued by different branches of the same Iranian court, either the Supreme Court or the Attorney General should seek the opinion of the General Assembly of the Supreme Court to issue a single, blanket interpretation of the law.
What do Christian Converts Want?
Recently, a group of Iranian Christians launched a campaign called "Church is the Right of All Christians", protest the repression of Christian religious ceremonies. They wrote a letter to the Iranian government in which it was bluntly asked: “Where can a Christian worship so as not to end up in prison?”
"This campaign was launched on the suggestion of Christian converts imprisoned in Iran and was supported by Article 18,” Mansour Borji says. “Shortly after the accompanying videos were released, the Supreme Court upheld the retrial request of these [nine] Christians, who were all members of a house church in Rasht [in Golestan province]. We are very optimistic that this will have an impact on the launch of the prisoners’ honorable campaign."
Marie Mohammadi was among the contributors to the videos. “The Iranian government has unjustly deprived Persian-speaking Christians of the inalienable right to a place of worship for many years,” she said. “For this reason, Persian-speaking Christians inevitably have to gather in their homes, their private spaces. This is considered an act against national security in the eyes of the Islamic Republic."
Mohammadi believes the deprivation of Christian converts from official purpose-built churches was a deliberate campaign aimed at "destroying the Christian faith in Iran". The result, she says, has been the opposite: "This deprivation has led to a dramatic increase in the number of people converting to Christianity. Christians are not guilty of anything.”
However, Mohammadi fears that the Supreme Court’s ruling was mainly for show, and for the benefit of an international community increasingly concerned by the abuse of minority groups in Iran. “Many prisoners are currently being tried in courts across the country for having formed or attended a house church. Those nine prisoners who have been exonerated by the Supreme Court should be released, but lamentably, they are still in prison. The government is unable to compensate for the more than four decades of suffering it has inflicted on Christians; these procedures are just a playground for propaganda.”