Four Christians in Iran will stand trial for "spreading Christianity" in the strict Islamic nation, a well-informed advocacy official told BosNewsLife, charges that could lead to long prison terms and possible a death sentence.
Pastor Amin Khaki and fellow Christians Daniel (Hossein) Barounzadeh, Mohammad Bahrami and Rahman Bahmani are to face a "retrial" on February 1, said Jason DeMars, director of the Present Truth Ministry group.
The trial that is being held at Iran's Ahwaz Khuzestan Province Revolutionary Court "is actually a re-trial, upon appeal, after having been convicted and sentenced for spreading Christianity in Iran," he added.
They were part of a group of eight Christians who were detained and interrogated following a picnic in March 2014 near the city of Danial-e Shoush.
"While they were holding their picnic, Iran’s secret police arrived in plain clothes with guns drawn," recalled DeMars. "They attacked and injured brother Rahman Bahmani during the incident."
Half of the Christians participating in the picnic were released, but the four men were later detained, several Christians said. "They were held without communication and without charges for months, even being transferred from one prison to another," explained DeMars.
Pastor Khaki was transferred to the Interim Ward of Ahwaz Prison in 2014 where he allegedly suffered what fellow believers called "severe mistreatment". He and other believers were released on bail in 2014, but prosecutors have made clear they will continue prosecuting them, DeMars suggested.
"Apostasy", or abandoning Islam and converting others, is punishable by death in Iran, according to Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, though in practise they may face long imprisonment.
"The Islamic Republic has never codified the crime of apostasy, instead, relying on the Iranian Constitution..." the independent group of human rights scholars and lawyers said. However "the differences in interpretations of Islamic law regarding apostasy, contribute to a lack of legal certainty for those living under Iranian laws," the Center noted.
Yet, "despite the persecution they are facing, these brethren are standing strong in their faith" said DeMars ahead of the upcoming appeals trial.
Documents accompanying a verdict of a lower court made clear the men have refused to renounce their faith in Jesus Christ. The court cited the testimony of Hossein Barounzadeh as evidence of perceived wrongdoing. “I was born in a Muslim family and believed in Islam as I practiced it and converted to Christianity in 2005,” he reportedly told the court.
“When he was questioned if he knew that he would be considered as an apostate after he converted to Christianity, he said he knew it," the court said in a previous verdict quoted by Present Truth Ministries.
"When he was asked why he made his faith public, he states, ‘I was neither lying nor hurting anyone.’ When the authorities told him about his charge about advertising against the Islamic Republic, he said, ‘I did it for my own salvation… I don’t believe that Christ is merely a prophet, He is my Savior…’".
The court noted that during the questioning in [Iran's Ministry of Intelligence] VEVAK’s secret facility, he said, ‘I was converted through a satellite channel known as “Nejat TV”, and after that, I attended church services in Karaj (12 times).’"
The verdict also said that "he confessed to holding services for himself and other Muslim born people in house churches in Shoush and giving out books and CD’s.".
Verdict documents also mentioned the testimony presented by Rahman Bahmani who reportedly said: “I was converted four years ago and attended church services in Karaj, Shoush, Ahvaz and Turkey. I changed a lot. I wasn’t a good man before, and when my wife saw the changes in me, she also converted to Christianity."
He also told the court: "When people ask me how my life has changed, I tell them that Jesus healed me.”
DeMars said Christians in the West should imagine being "interrogated" for their faith. "Imagine how you would answer such questions by an interrogator that could beat you, torture you, harm your family or even kill you."
He said he had urged supporters to "Please, do not neglect to pray for and spread the word about these believers who will stand trial very soon in Iran."
The trial has underscored remaining international concerns over Iran's treatment of Christians and other minorities despite the recent release of Iranian-born American Pastor Saeed Abedini this month and earlier Farshid Fathi Malayeri, an Assemblies of God (AoG) pastor.