Photo: Saeed Abedini remains in prison in Iran (ACLJ photo)
ISTANBUL (Morning Star News) – Four Christian converts from Islam arrested last year for alleged evangelistic activities had to post enormous bail amounts in order to be released from an Iranian prison.
Soroush Saraei, Mohammad Roghangir, and Massoud Rezaei were released at midnight March 19 after each posted $80,000 in bail, according to the Iranian media website Mohabat News. The fourth, Eskandar Rezaie, was released this week and posted the same amount.
The four Christians and Shahin Lahooti, who is still in jail, were detained for five months in Adel-Abad Prison in Shiraz, 920 kilometers (571 miles) south of Tehran. Information of their release did not reach international media until Wednesday (March 27).
The judge intentionally set the bail amount high to financially cripple the Iranian Christian community, Khataza Gondwe, Africa and Middle East director for Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) told Morning Star News.
None of the group members were assaulted while in prison, but they were singled out from other prisoners for their faith, Gondwe said.
“The five did not experience torture or other mistreatment while detained,” Gondwe said. “However, their movements and prison privileges were limited. They were not allowed out for exercise, could not use the library, and contact with other prisoners was also limited.”
No second hearing has been scheduled for the case, meaning that they could spend years in legal limbo. Evangelistic activity is considered a crime against the Islamic state, and pastors and others arrested under these charges have spent years awaiting a hearing.
Those who are released on bail face the option of fleeing the country, but at the risk of putting those who posted their bail into financial ruin. They also risk losing their homes by putting up property deeds as collateral.
“Some have stayed in jail for several months before a trial, others for a year if not more,” said Gondwe. In regard to those who have received bail, “there seem to be a tendency to drive Christians out of the country. But now having paid bail, the person who paid it will lose it, and if it’s something like a title deed for a house, it’s doubtful they will be leaving.”
The Christians are all members of the Church of Iran, a heavily persecuted denomination and a controversial group that many local Christians regard as being “non-Trinitarian.”
The five men were detained since their arrest last October for allegedly “threatening national security” and evangelizing. They were transferred to Adel-Abad Prison, which houses hardened criminals and often lacks heating or health facilities, according to CSW.
Political prisoners also fill Adel-Abad, where as many as two dozen are crammed into a 250- square-foot cell. There Christian converts frequently suffer beatings from other inmates and are denied proper medical attention, as is the case with pastor Benham Irani, who suffers from an acute blood infection and is barely able to walk.
Police originally arrested the five men and two others at a house prayer service led by Roghangir. It was part of a state-wide crackdown against non-Islamic religious groups, which the theocratic regime regards as a threat.
The arrests come amid a pattern of massive political arrests and executions, all part of a general repression leading up to presidential elections.
“This is the procedure these days with cases of converts, and I think there is a message being sent out with them,” Gondwe said.
Abedini’s Condition Worsens
As their case lingers, an international outcry is growing against another Iranian detained by the regime for converting to Christianity. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the European Union, and half a million petitioners have called for the release of American-Iranian Pastor Saeed Abedini, 32.
Kerry called for the immediate release of Abedini in a statement on Friday (March 22) and criticized Iran for its refusal to allow consular access by Swiss authorities, the U.S. protecting power in Iran.
“I am disturbed by reports that Mr. Abedini has suffered physical and psychological abuse in prison, and that his condition has become increasingly dire,” he said.” Such mistreatment violates international norms as well as Iran’s own laws.”
Policy experts and Abedini’s family members, however, have criticized the State Department for what it believes to be half-hearted support of the pastor because of his evangelical Christian faith.
Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom and a fellow at the Hudson Institute, told Breitbart News, a conservative Internet news portal, that the State Department and Kerry have not called sufficient attention to Abedini’s case.
“The State Department’s press release ... fails to mention that Abedini is a Christian pastor and that he is imprisoned for his Christian faith,” Shea said. “Religious freedom is a basic human right, set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and one that is of special importance to the United States both in the Constitution, where it is enshrined as the first clause of the First Amendment, and as a pillar of foreign policy in the International Religious Freedom Act.”
Abedini’s wife, Naghmeh Abedini, criticized the State Department for not sending anyone to a March 15 Congressional committee that called for the release of the pastor. She expressed disappointment with the government for not lobbying more aggressively for her husband, a U.S. citizen.
Abedini has been incarcerated since his arrest in September and was sentenced on Jan. 27 to eight years in prison. He was charged with threatening “national security” by planting house churches.
He has traveled back and forth between the United States and Iran since becoming a U.S. citizen in 2010 after marrying his U.S. wife. He had made more than nine humanitarian trips to Iran since 2009 and was working on plans to establish an orphanage on his most recent trip.
Last week his family received a letter in which he described his treatment at Evin Prison, a facility that houses political prisoners alongside the nation’s most dangerous criminals and that is notorious for harsh treatment and conditions.
According to the American Center for Law and Justice, Abedini wrote the letter weeks ago on the margins of newspaper scraps. In it he relates a story in which the medical staff told him they would not treat him after he received severe beatings for his Christian faith.
“In our religion we are not supposed to touch you,” a nurse said to him. “You are unclean.”
“She did not treat me and that night I could not sleep from the intense pain I had,” Abedini wrote. “According to the doctor’s instructions, they would not give me the pain medication that they would give other prisoners because I was unclean.”
An estimated 100,000 Christian converts practice their faith underground in Iran, a religious dictatorship since its 1979 revolution; conversion from Islam to Christianity is punishable by death. The country is 98.6 percent Muslim, according to Operation World, with the overall number of Christians estimated at 384,897, or .51 percent of the population.
c. 2013 Morning Star News. Used with permission.
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Publication date: April 1, 2013