By Worthy News Middle East Service with reporting by Stefan J. Bos
TEHRAN, IRAN (Worthy News)– Five Iranian house church Christians were behind bars Wednesday, March 15, after being sentenced to one year imprisonment on charges of "crimes against the Islamic order" and there were reports that Iranian authorities have been burning Bibles.
Pastor Behrouz Sadegh-Khandjani, Mehdi Furutan, Mohammad Beliad, Parviz Khalaj and Nazly Beliad, who are members of the Church of Iran house church movement, were found guilty by the Revolutionary Court in Shiraz, according to trial observers. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), an advocacy group closely monitoring the case, said the have 20 days to appeal the sentence.
The five men were detained last June, but released in February after posting high bail payments. They had spent nearly eight months in prison in Shiraz on charges of apostasy, political meetings, blasphemy and crimes against the Islamic Order, accusations rights activists have linked to their Christian activities.
Four of the charges were dropped during the trial, Christians said. There has been concerns about the health of Pastor Sadegh-Khanjani, 33, who CSW said was held in solitary confinement and given access to his attorney only once.
SEVERAL TIMES DETAINED
Pastor Sadegh-Khanjani, from Tehran, has been arrested three times in the past four years, while most other members of the group have been caught in cycles of detentions and releases, CSW added. "Some have suffered severe levels of torture during previous detentions," the group added.
Christians have told Worthy News that they also remain remains about another Church of Iran leader, Pastor Yousef Nadakharni, who has been sentenced to death for apostasy. Pastor Nadarkhani is currently held incommunicado in Lakan prison, and his appeal is pending at the Supreme Court.
The detentions are seen as part of a wider government crackdown on Christianity in the country, which also include burning of Bibles. Iranian Christian news agency Mohabat News said Monday there have been several cases of bible burnings by authorities.
In one of the most recent incident, Mohabat News said authorities burned 600 New Testaments last month after removing two boxes from a bus in Derishk, a small village bordering Turkey, about 15 km (10 miles) from the town of Salmas.
It was unclear who was behind the reported transport of Bibles.
BIBLES ARE CONFISCATED
The news agency said the coordinated operation between the Office of Contraband Search and Seizure and the Revolutionary Guards of Salmas came came after hundreds of New Testaments were allegedly confiscated by Iranian authorities from a passengers bus heading for Tehran at the Salmas border crossing.
Security forces also searched a home of a man who recently converted to Christianity in the town of Salmas, the news agency added.
Iranian officials could not be reached for comment, by Mohabat News suggested these were no isolated incidents.
"This shameful act of burning the Christian New Testaments was a repetition of a similar action taken by the security forces of the Islamic Republic, on June 8, 2010, in one of the western towns of Sardasht, which was reported by media outlets loyal and in service of the Islamic Republic of Iran."
WIDER PRESSURE REPORTED
The attacks come amid wider reported pressure on groups deemed dangerous by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government.
The United States recently said that the “government respect for religious freedom continued to deteriorate in Iran” and that even Muslims who are not from the majority Shiite group faced “substantial societal discrimination” in the strict Islamic nation.
However in a recent statement carried by state news agency IRNA, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast hit back accusing the U.S. of infringing the religious rights of Muslims. “The US government expresses concern about the situation of some fake cults fabricated by English colonialists and Zionists while … it is the biggest violator of Muslims’ religious rights.”