Release International
Release International

Release International is calling for clemency for an Iranian Pastor, who was put on trial three years ago this week for leading a house church. Iran has sentenced Pastor Behnam Irani on 'national security' charges and is holding him as a political prisoner. He has been beaten, deprived of sleep and his health is deteriorating.

January 16 was the third anniversary of the trial of Iranian pastor, Behnam Irani. He has been sentenced to a total of six years in jail for running a house church. The official charge against the 43-year old is 'offences against nationa lsecurity'.

The father of two is serving his sentence in Ghezal Hesar prison, in his home town of Karaj, an hour's drive northwest of Tehran. In 2011, many prisoners were killed at the jail as they staged violent protests against executions there.

Release contacts say the Iranian pastor has been held in appalling conditions, has been beaten and is seriously ill. His medical conditions, for which he has received inadequate treatment, include a bleeding ulcer and a herniated disc. His family are concerned he may die in prison.

Pastor Irani was first arrested in December 2006 ostensibly for 'actions against national security'. He was given a five-year suspended sentence in 2008. Then in April 2010 national security officers raided a service at his house church in Karaj. They assaulted Pastor Irani, confiscated his Bibles and literature, and took him into custody.

In January 2011 a court convicted and later jailed him for a year. Then, in October, three days before he was due to be released, the authorities reactivated his earlier five-year suspended sentence. He is due to complete his sentence in October 2016.

'We appeal to those in authority in Iran to show clemency to this father of two young children, who is behind bars simply for being a pastor,' says Release International's UK director Colin King. 'We also ask Iran to provide Behnam Irani with the urgent medical attention that he needs.'

In 2008 the Appeal Court called for Pastor Irani to be tried for apostasy, which carries a death sentence. His parents had been Muslims. The prosecutor said: '[He] left the holy religion of Islam and became a Christian. and. deceived a group of people into leaving Islam. Therefore as mentioned in [Islamic religious text] the above-mentioned individual is definitely an innate apostate, and the sentence for innate apostasy is death.'

Observers believe the real reason Pastor Behnam Irani has been singled out is because he encouraged Muslims to change their faith.

In Ghezal Hesar prison in Albourz State the most violent criminals in Iran are locked up in the same cells as political prisoners. According to the International Society for Human Rights, torture and physical abuse are common. Guards have repeatedly woken Pastor Irani as a form of sleep deprivation, and have moved him to a crowded cell where there is not enough room for inmates to lie down.

In a letter from prison he wrote: 'In jail I have attained new experiences about love. Here, I live with cellmates of whom it is hard to see anything positive in their lives and personalities. They don't think about anything but negative values, abhorrent acts, learning new experiences in crimes and nasty literature.

'I look at them and whisper to myself, "do they really deserve prayers and intercessions?" Immediately, I remember that Jesus Christ was sacrificed for their sins too. "He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world." (1 John 2:2).'

Pastor Irani's health has gravely deteriorated behind bars. Release contacts say other prisoners have beaten him up, while prison guards refuse to intervene. His eyesight has been failing, he has lost weight and finds walking painful. In 2012 he was vomiting blood and passed out because of an untreated stomach ulcer.

The Pastor is married to Kristina, an Armenian Christian. He has two young children, a daughter, Rebecca, and a son, Adriel. He became a pastor in 2002.

In December 2013 Iranian secret police violently broke into his home and confiscated his wife's laptop and Christian materials. At the same time, police also raided the homes of three other church leaders.

Release International is maintaining a Facebook campaign calling on the Iranian authorities to release Pastor Irani. You can add your support here. here

Release has also produced a five-minute video highlighting the persecution of Christians in Iran, which is available here. here

Christians in Iran make up just half of one per cent of the population of almost 80m. Many churches have been closed or restricted to conducting services in Armenian or Assyrian. Most church meetings in Iran now take place in private homes. Christians are discriminated against in education, employment and property ownership. Those from a Muslim background pay a particularly high price.

Release contacts suggest that ordinary Christians who keep a low profile are able to practise their faith quietly, with little interference. But more prominent believers such as pastors may find themselves under scrutiny and being monitored by the Ministry of Islamic Guidance. 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.