Three Christians in Iran have been charged with "sectarian activities" under a new amendment to the Iranian penal code.
Amin Khaki, Milad Goudarzi and Alireza Nourmohammadi are all from Muslim backgrounds and were initially accused of "engaging in propaganda against the Islamic regime".
It is thought they are now being punished using a new amendment that was passed by the Iranian Parliament and signed by outgoing president Hassan Rouhani in February this year which states that "any deviant education or propaganda that contradicts or interferes with the sacred Islamic shari'a, will be severely punished."
The new amendment seems to be targetting groups labelled by the authorities as "wrong cults". The Farsi translation is a term often used to undermine and persecute groups that have deviated from Twelver Shiism, the official school of thought for the judiciary in Iran. It seems the Iranian authorities have extended this to include evangelical movements, as well as conversion from Islam to Christianity.
The new amendment allows the authorities to impose prison sentences of between two and five years, to take away the right to vote for up to 15 years and monetary fines.
The Christian converts being charged are from the Church of Iran and stood trial in Karaj in northern Iran on Monday, where the presiding judge prevented the defendants' lawyer from attending the trial, claiming that he had not been registered as their lawyer.
However, sources closes to religious freedom charity Christian Solidarity Worldwide claim the lawyer had fulfilled all the necessary requirements ten days before the trial began. During the hearing, the judge informed the three defendants that they had no choice but to represent themselves in court.
The three men were initially summoned and interrogated in May 2021, where they were accused of "engaging in propaganda against the Islamic regime" and then released on bail and instructed to report to the police every week. They were also advised to leave the country and warned not to pursue any mediation in their case. Seventeen other church members were also interrogated.
Until now, the Iranian authorities have primarily charged converts to Christianity with "action against state security" and Iranian judges have systematically misused this notion in recent years to crack down on them.
CSW's founder president Mervyn Thomas said: "This amendment is likely to make the situation even more difficult for religious minorities in the country. We call upon the Iranian authorities to repeal this and similar laws which hinder the full realisation of fundamental human rights for the Iranian people, and to end the relentless campaign of harassment of Christians and other religious minorities through the judicial system."
It comes as Christians in Iran fear further persecution after the election of the hardliner Ebrahim Raisi as President. He is reported in The Times of ordering the mass executions of political prisoners in the 1980s while he was a young prosecutor.