Iranian pastor Behnam Irani has been released from prison after being jailed for six years for leading a house church and sharing his faith - 'offences' that Iran has portrayed as crimes against national security.
Partners of Release International have confirmed that Behnam Irani has
finally been freed. However, he is said to be in poor health following
his ordeal in Ghezal Hesar prison, reputedly one of the toughest jails
'Release International is delighted that Pastor Irani has finally been set free. We have been campaigning for this for years,' says Paul Robinson, the CEO of the charity which supports persecuted Christians around the world.
'However, our partners report that 200 other prisoners remain in jail in Iran because of their faith - a number have been arrested over the past year. Like Behnam Irani, many of these Christian prisoners have been beaten, abused and threatened.
'End the crackdown'
'Release urges Iran to end its long-running crackdown on the church and set free all of its prisoners who are behind bars for their religious beliefs.'
Earlier this month, three Iranian Christians were sentenced to 80 lashes for taking communion wine. And like Behnam Irani, they face charges of crimes 'against national security'.
It is illegal for a Muslim to drink alcohol in Iran and these Christians are converts from Muslim backgrounds. These charges reflect the state position that once a Muslim, always a Muslim.
'Why should Christians be whipped for taking communion?' asks Paul Robinson. 'Release calls on Iran to give its citizens freedom of religion, and to stop confusing that most basic of human freedoms - freedom to choose your faith - with state security.'
Pastor Behnam Irani, who is 43, was jailed in 2011 for leading a Church of Iran congregation in Karaj. He was put in a cell with violent offenders, without even enough room to lie down.
He has been badly beaten behind bars by his captors and other prisoners. He suffered a bleeding ulcer and herniated disc and his eyesight began to fail. He was warned he would not leave prison alive because of his faith.
Behnam Irani was due to be released on Oct 18 2011, but was told he would have to serve another five year suspended sentence for continuing to hold church services while on bail.
Pastor Irani is now expected to be reunited with his wife, Kristina, an Armenian, and his two children, 11 year old Rebecca, and his younger son, Adriel.
There is a risk the pastor could still be charged with apostasy - converting from Islam - which carries the death sentence. The Appeal Court called for him to be tried for apostasy in 2008.
Despite pledges of reform by President Rouhani, Iranian officials continue to make group arrests, often targeting evangelical house groups.
Repression has increased since 2010 when Ayatollah Khamenei branded house churches a threat to national security. Christians are often accused of 'undermining national security'.
In Iran, freedom for all faiths other than Shia Islam is limited, despite constitutional guarantees of religious liberty. Evangelising Muslims is illegal.
Christians make up just half of one per cent of the population. Most are discriminated against in education, employment and property ownership.
Many of Iran's Christians are ethnic Armenians or Assyrians. To limit the spread of the faith, many churches have been closed or restricted to conducting services in Armenian or Assyrian. This has driven churches underground.
Most Christians in Iran now meet in private homes. Prominent figures such as pastors may come under the scrutiny of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Many are forced out of the country.
Christians from a Muslim background pay a particularly high price. A number of Iranian Christians who were raised as Muslims remain in detention. Some suffer from severe ill-health due to lack of medical treatment and beatings from prison staff and other inmates.
Yet despite the persecution, Iran's church is growing.
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