Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani made international headlines and eventually won his freedom after being imprisoned and sentenced to death by an Iranian court, but several other Christians remain in the Islamic nation's prisons simply because of their faith.
Advocates of the men and women who refuse to renounce their Christian beliefs in a nation where they are vastly outnumbered by an often hostile population say their best chance for freedom is international pressure. Less than 1 percent of Iran's population is comprised of people of non-Muslim faith, according to CIA's World Factbook, and Christians, Jews and Hindi face relentless persecution.
“Iran has amped up its systematic persecution of Christians over the last year, closing churches, burning Bibles, imprisoning believers, and using threats and intimidations tactics to suppress religious expression,” said Tiffany Barrans, International legal Director for the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which waged a successful campaign for Nadarkhani’s release.
Nadarkhani's dramatic release after three years in prison came Sept. 8, after an international campaign of diplomatic and online pressure prompted a judge to reduce his sentence to time served for downgraded charges of "evangelizing to Muslims." But other Christian ministers still languish in Iranian prisons with deplorable conditions simply for professing their faith.
Pastor Farshid Fathi has been locked up in Iran’s notorious Evin prison since December 2010 for what the ACLJ describes as practicing his Christian faith. After bowing to international pressure, Iranian authorities are starting to avoid charges that appear to be based on a person’s faith, according to the ACLJ. In Fathi’s case, his Christian activity was framed as being “criminal political offenses” by the court.
The regime in Iran equated his activities as “actions against national security,” based on evidence the pastor unlawfully distributed Bibles printed in Iran's language of Farsi. His lawyers were denied information about the case until just days before the trial. Since his conviction, Fathi has been held at Evin, where hundreds of political prisoners endure horrid conditions, physical and psychological torture, violent interrogations and sleep deprivation.
Another Christian minister, Pastor Behnam Irani, is serving six years in Ghezal Hezar prison for alleged “actions against the state,” after he preached to a group of converted Christians in a house church as well as sharing his faith with Muslims. Irani was originally arrested in in December 2006, convicted and given a five-year suspended prison sentence. He was arrested again in April 2010 and given a one-year prison sentence, and just before his scheduled release, told that he would have to serve the full term of the suspended sentence from 2006, according to the ACLJ.
Irani has suffered severe stomach ulcers and other serious ailments while imprisoned, and received death threats and beatings from other prisoners and authorities at Ghezal Hezar, according to his supporters.
Maryam Jalili was sent to Evin in 2011 for a two-and-a-half-year sentence for "membership in an illegal group" and charges of apostasy after she and 14 other Christians gathered at a house church in Pakdasht on Dec. 24, 2009 for Christmas services. Jalili was detained for more than a week before her local authorities told her family, say her supporters. Officials told the families of her and other detainees that they would be released that day, but instead they were secretly transferred to Evin.
Jalili was originally released on bail in March 2010 but was re-arrested in 2011 and was sent back to Evin, which is infamous for its severe mistreatment of women detainees.
Supporters of the persecuted Christians say Nadarkhani's release shows Iran will bow to international pressure, if enough people and governments are involved.
“Pastor Youcef's recent release is certainly something to celebrate, but amidst the celebration we must remember that many others remain in prison in Iran solely for their faith," said Barrans. "Iran is at a critical juncture both politically and diplomatically. We must use this moment, while the world is listening, to draw attention to Iran's many abuses of human rights.”