TEHRAN, IRAN (Worthy News)-- Five detained members of one of Iran's largest house church movements were to face a trial Monday, April 5, on charges of "blasphemy" which carries the death penalty in this strict Islamic nation, a church representative told Worthy News.
Pastor Behrouz Sadegh-Khandjani, Mehdi Furutan, Parviz Khalaj, Mohammed Beliad and his wife Nazly Makarian Beliad,of the Church of Iran denomination, are already serving a one-year prison sentence for "crimes against the Islamic Order" at the Revolutionary Court in Shiraz.
Now the other "trial of the servants of the Church of Iran has is been set for April 5. They have been accused of blasphemy against Islam," said a church representative with close knowledge about the situation.
Worthy News did not immediately reveal his identity amid security concerns. The official said he has supporters of the embattled Church of Iran "to intercede and pray for them." The five Christians were initially arrested in June 2010 on charges of apostasy, political meetings, blasphemy and crimes against the Islamic Order. They spent eight months in jail before being briefly released on bail in February.
Their lawyer has appealed the one-year prison sentence for crimes against the Islamic Order and a decision is pending, trial observers said. It was initially assumed that the other charges against the five men had been dropped.
However church sources say they will now face charges of blasphemy in a lower court, as lower courts are generally more likely to hand down guilty verdicts. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), a major advocacy group, expressed concerns about their situation.
"CSW is dismayed by the charges faced by the group," of Christians, said CSW’s National Director Stuart Windsor."The international community must press Iran not only to rescind the unjust punishments to which these Christians have already been subjected, but also to acquit them at the upcoming trial," he told Worthy News.
Rights activists say the case has underscored that the situation for Christians is worsening in Iran. Churches find it difficult to hold meetings, and many Christians are attempting to flee the country, according to CSW investigators.
Christians in Iran are also increasingly concerned for Yousef Nadarkhani, the pastor of a large congregation in the city of Rasht, who was arrested in late 2009. He remains in prison after having been sentenced to death for the crime of apostasy, "despite there being no articles in the Iranian legal code that refer to such a crime,"CSW said
Instead, the presiding judge in the Nadarkhani case reportedly based his ruling on texts by Iranian religious scholars. An appeal to the Supreme Court was filed in December, and a hearing is due within two months.
"We are concerned that the judgment handed down in Pastor Nadarkhani’s case did not follow due procedureunder Iranian law. As a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Iran has an obligation to uphold international standards of religious freedom for all its citizens, to follow due process and refrain from arbitrary judicial rulings based on open-ended legislation," Windsor said.
The reported crackdown on devoted Christians has been linked to concern within Iran's government about the spread of Christianity among Muslims.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his officials have denied wrongdoing and the government has defended harsh sentences, including executions of political opponents and Christians as part of defending the Islamic state.