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Iran gives Christians 80 lashes for communion wine as UN blasts human rights record

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Christians in Iran are being driven to worship in secret house churches, and even there, they may face arrest. (Reuters)

Four Iranian Christians were reportedly sentenced to 80 lashes for drinking wine for communion, a shocking punishment meted out even as a new United Nations report blasted the Islamic republic for its systematic persecution of non-Muslims.

The four men were sentenced Oct. 6 after being arrested in a house church last December and charged with consuming alcohol in violation of the theocracy's strict laws, according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide. They were among several Christians punished for their faith in a nation where converting from Islam to Christianity can bring the death penalty. According to a new October UN report by Ahmed Shaheed, UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, such persecution is common, despite new President Hasan Rouhani's pledge to be a moderate. 

“At least 20 Christians were in custody in July 2013," Shaheed wrote. "In addition, violations of the rights of Christians, particularly those belonging to evangelical Protestant groups, many of whom are converts, who proselytize to and serve Iranian Christians of Muslim background, continue to be reported.”

"If the regime thinks that its international charm offensive will help whitewash its appalling human rights record as documented by the UN report, they are sorely mistaken.”

- Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee

Iran’s regime has made stopping the spread of Christianity a cornerstone of its crackdown on religious freedom. There are estimated to be as many as 370,000 Christians in Iran, according to the most recent U.S. State Department report. The clerical rulers see Christianity as a threat to Iran’s majority ultra-orthodox Shiite Islamic religion.

“Despite the recent Iranian charm offensive, Dr. Shaheed's report reminds us of the true nature of the Iranian regime where the abuse of human rights continue," Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), chairman and founder of the Iran Dissident Awareness Program, told FoxNews.com. "Political prisoners like blogger Mohammad  Reza Pourshajari are being denied adequate medical care,  journalists and their families continue to be targets of the regime, Pastor Saeed Abedini and Amir Hekmati are still languishing in prison and the Baha'i community faces increasing persecution. This is the true nature of the regime we're dealing with during negotiations in Geneva."

Alireza Miryousefi,a spokesman for Iran’s mission to the UN, did not respond to requests for comment, but Iran’s government blasted Dr. Shaheed’s report as not objective. According to Iran’s state-controlled news outlet Press TV, an Iranian official from the UN mission said Shaheed "has not paid sufficient notice to Iran's legal system and Islamic culture and considers whatever he sees in the West as an international standard for the entire world."

Shaheed is widely considered to be one of the world’s leading authorities on human rights. He served as the minister of foreign Affairs of the Republic of Maldives.

“It should be no surprise that Iran’s human rights record as documented by the UN is nothing short of atrocious," Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told FoxNews.com. "If the regime thinks that its international charm offensive will help whitewash its appalling human rights record as documented by the UN report, they are sorely mistaken.”

The UN reported noted Iran’s “Authorities continue to compel licensed Protestant churches to restrict Persian-speaking and Muslim-born Iranians from participating in services, and raids and forced closures of house churches are ongoing…More than 300 Christians have been arrested since 2010, and dozens of church leaders and active community members have reportedly been convicted of national security crimes in connection with church activities, such as organizing prayer groups, proselytizing and attending Christian seminars abroad. “

On Monday, a retired California pastor, Eddie Romero, managed to sneak into Iran to demand the release of imprisoned Iranian Christians. Pastor Romero protested in front of Iran’s notorious Evin prison, declaring “Let my people go.” Prison officials detained Romero and he was sent back to the U.S. Romero sought to shine a spotlight on  the plight of imprisoned Christian Iranians, including Farshid Fathi, the American-Iranian pastor Saeed Abedini, Mostafa Bordbar, and Alireza Seyyedian.

The four Christian Iranians sentenced to 80 lashes for violating Iran’s anti-alcohol law have ten days to appeal their verdict.

“The sentences handed down to these members of the Church of Iran effectively criminalize the Christian sacrament of sharing in the Lord’s Supper and constitute an unacceptable infringement on the right to practice faith freely and peaceably,” Mervyn Thomas, chief executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, said.

Benjamin Weinthal reports on the Christians in the Middle East. He is a fellow at the Foundation For Defense of Democracies. Follow Benjamin on Twitter@BenWeinthal

Benjamin Weinthal is a Berlin-based fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter@BenWeinthal.