On February 25, 2020, authorities upheld the five-year prison sentence of a pastor in Iran. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, reportedly gave a judge authority to reject the pastor’s appeal without following proper court procedures.
“We urge the Government of Iran to end the harassment of the Christian community,” said Mervyn Thomas, Chief Executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), a human rights organization. Responding to the pastor’s arrest in February 2019, Thomas said, “The fact that Iran continues to commit flagrant human rights violations while simultaneously seeking improved relations with other countries should be a matter of utmost concern.”
Pastor in Iran Sentenced to 5 Years in Prison
Pastor Matthias Haghnejad is with the Church of Iran in Rasht, which is the capital city of Gilan Province in Iran. According to CSW, on the evening of February 10, 2019, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) came to the church and arrested Haghnejad after a service had finished. While there, the IRGC confiscated Bibles and cell phones, after which they went to Haghnejad’s house and took the pastor’s books and his wife’s phone.
According to the BBC, the IRGC is distinct from Iran’s regular armed forces. Since being established 40 years ago “to defend the country’s Islamic system,” the IRGC has “become a major military, political and economic force in Iran, with close ties to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and many other senior figures.”
Sources for CSW say that Haghnejad encouraged the congregation as he was being led away and seemed not to have been surprised at his arrest. This is not the first time the pastor in Iran has been detained by authorities. CSW reports,“Since 2006, Pastor Haghnejad has been arrested and tried on several occasions in the cities of Rasht, Shiraz and Karaj.” During one of those incidents in 2014, the pastor was charged with “Moharebeh,” or “enmity against God,” a crime for which people can be executed.
Eight other members of the Church of Iran were detained in early 2019 following the arrest of Pastor Haghnejad. The men were tried with the pastor and received the same sentence that he did.
Iranian authorities have been guilty of “numerous legal irregularities” throughout the past year, says CSW, noting that the presiding judge in the case, Mohammed Moghisheh, is “notorious for miscarriages of justice.” At a hearing at the end of July, Moghisheh tried to force five of the men (including Pastor Haghnejad) to replace their defense attorney, Moshgani Farahani, with a court-appointed lawyer. The other four defendants had chosen to represent themselves. At a hearing a few days later for those four men, the judge showed his prejudice by calling them “apostates” and saying that the Bible was false.
The nine Christians received their five-year prison sentences at a trial on September 23, 2019, during which Farahani was allowed to speak. However, one source said, “It seemed as if the judge had already made his decision and allowed this process as a formality before pronouncing a predetermined sentence.” The men were sentenced under charges of “endangering state security” and “promoting Zionism.” All nine appealed their sentences at the time and remained in custody.
Now Pastor’s Haghnejad’s sentence has been upheld without a hearing. Says Thomas, “We are deeply concerned by the lack of due process in Pastor Matthias Haghnejad’s case, and that of the eight other members of the Church of Iran, who have been sentenced alongside him. CSW believes that the charges against them are without basis and continues to call for their immediate and unconditional release.”
In addition to the troubling nature of this ongoing obstruction of justice, CSW says there are concerns that Iranian officials are not sufficiently protecting prisoners from the coronavirus.
Pray for All Believers, As Well As This Pastor in Iran
Christian persecution is severe in Iran, which ranks ninth on Open Doors’ most recent World Watch List. Iranian authorities oppress Christians for sharing their faith, producing Christian literature, and attending church services. In the summer of 2019, one bookseller was arrested for selling the Bible.
Because of this persecution, some Iranian Christians are fleeing the country and seeking asylum elsewhere. Another result of the oppression, however, is that the Iranian church is growing dramatically.
At a press conference for the 2020 World Watch List, Open Doors president and CEO David Curry said, “People are speaking out. They are crying out, and we have an obligation to hear them.” One of the ways all believers can respond to the suffering of our brothers and sisters across the world is by supporting them through prayer.
The World Watch List concludes, “Your prayers are such a source of strength and hope for Christians who live in places where it’s dangerous or hard to follow Jesus. As you walk through 2020, will you remember the countries on the World Watch List?”