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WATCH: Imprisoned Christian converts plead for safe place to worship after release

by Heather Preston

Three Christian converts imprisoned for their faith in Iran have released video appeals calling on the government for a safe place to worship following their release from prison.

Babak Hosseinzadeh and Behnam Akhlaghi were among nine Christian converts arrested in 2019 for attending a house-church in Iran's northern city of Rasht.

The men were sentenced to five years in prison for "acting against national security through promoting Christian Zionism".  

In recent years the majority of Persian-speaking churches have been forcibly closed by the authorities while the few that remain open are not allowed to accept visitors or new members.

Attending a house-church is a criminal offence punishable by up to five years in prison.

Babak and Behnam have currently served two and half years of their sentence. During a few weeks furlough from prison both men recorded messages to the Iranian government, asking where they can safely worship under their rights to freedom of religion.

"If I am told, 'We respect your faith, we respect your beliefs, and the only problem we have with you is that you attend a house-church,' my question is, if this respect truly exists, then where should I attend a church after my release?" asked Behnam in his video. "Where should I practise my faith as a Christian?" 

Below is a video of Babak temporarily reunited with his daughter during furlough from prison, after over two years apart.

The men also wrote a joint letter with Saheb Fadaie, a pastor who is serving a six-year prison sentence. 

Mansour Borji is the research and advocacy director for Article 18. He tells Premier there has been a growing number of Christian converts in the country, which has raised concerns for the Iranian governent.

"They have stepped up the crack down on Christians, especially in the last ten to twelve years. Because of this we hear constant reports off arrests and detentions." 

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights protects the rights of individuals, including the right to freedom of religion - a covenant that Iran has committed to.

A number of Christian charities argue that Iran is in violation of these commitments and a new campaign has been launched to highlight the plight of Persian Christians in Iran.

Borji says it is a God given right to worship: "It is also Iranians own constitution's guaranteed right which is being violated time and time again. 

"Iran's commitment to international law also obligates them to provide security for them to worhip privately and collectively." 

The #Place2Worship campaign encourages social media users to share their stories and show solidarity with Persian speaking Christians who are unable to freely practise their faith.

OpenDoors, Artical 18, CSW and Release International have joined others in calling on the UN Commissioner for Human Rights to take action.

A joint statement reads: "We are a group of Christian organisations, united in our commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights and our desire to see human rights afforded to all, in Iran and internationally. 

"We write to solicit your urgent intervention on behalf of Persian-speaking Christians in Iran, whose enjoyment of the right to the freedoms of religion or belief (FoRB) and expression are being violated comprehensively, as they currently have no place where they can gather to worship. This group includes converts to Christianity from a Muslim background, as well as ethnic Armenian and Assyrian Christians who wish to worship in the national language (Persian), as many do not speak or understand any other language.

"Persian-speaking Christians are being denied enjoyment of their very basic rights under the ICCPR. Additionally, Iran's own Constitution, per Article 13, considers 'Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian Iranians,' regardless of their ethnicity, gender and language, as 'recognised religious minorities, who, within the limits of the law, are free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies, and to act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education.'  Thus, Iran is in clear contravention of its obligations under both international law, as well as the protections within its own Constitution,' It reads.

The charities are requesting clarification on where Persian-speaking Christians can gather to worship freely without risking harassment and imprisonment.

They have also requested the unconditional release of Christian prisoners of conscience incarcerated or exiled for peacefully practising their religious belief and an end to the mistreatment of members and attendees of house-churches.

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