The Christians are also charged with crimes 'against national security'. Release International calls on Iran to grant freedom of religion to its citizens.

Release International
Release International

Three Iranian Christians are to appeal a sentence of 80 lashes for taking communion wine. The Christians are converts from Muslim backgrounds. The sentence reflects the state's hard-line refusal to recognise the right of Muslims to change their religion.

Release International is calling for the Iranian authorities to allow its citizens to choose their own faith and to acquit the Christians. They also face charges of crimes 'against national security'.

Drinking alcohol is not illegal for Christians in Iran, but is forbidden for Muslims. The charges brought against these Christian converts reflect the state position that once a Muslim, always a Muslim.

'Why should Christians be lashed for taking communion?' asks Release Chief Executive Paul Robinson.

'And why is Iran refusing to allow its own citizens that most basic of all freedoms, the freedom to choose their own faith? These men have chosen to call themselves Christians. The state should respect that.'

Yaser Mosibzadeh, Saheb Fadayee and Mohammed Reza Omidi (also known as Youhan) were arrested at their house church in Rasht on May 13. According to Middle East Concern, Mohammed Reza was one of four Christians from a Muslim background who was given 80 lashes for the same charge in 2012.

The Christians are appealing against the verdict, but they also face more serious charges of 'action against national security', along with their pastor, Yousef Nadarkhani. They are due to face the Revolutionary Court in Rasht on October 15.

Iran stepped up its crackdown on Christian activists in 2015. Ninety prisoners are now in jail for their faith. Many have been beaten and abused. Some have been threatened with death. Iranian officials often target evangelical house groups.

Repression against the church has increased since 2010 when Ayatollah Khamenei branded house churches a threat to national security. Christians are often accused of 'undermining national security'. And this latest case is no exception.

Yet the church in Iran continues to grow despite being under constant pressure.

Freedom for all faiths other than Shia Islam is limited, despite constitutional guarantees of religious liberty. Evangelising Muslims is illegal and the official penalty for apostasy (conversion from Islam) is death, although the sentence has rarely been carried out.

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 of their churches have been closed or restricted to conducting services in Armenian or Assyrian. This has driven many congregations 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 severe ill-health due to lack of medical treatment and beatings from prison staff and other inmates.

'Iran's President Rouhani was elected on a platform promising reform. The greatest reform he could offer his people is to allow them true freedom of religion,' says Paul Robinson of Release. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.