By Worthy News Middle East Service
TEHRAN, IRAN (Worthy News)– An Iranian court has told arrested evangelical Christians who may face execution on charges of apostasy that they "should be punished", but that their trial "has been postpone for April," a senior church official said Thursday, February 17.
"The judge claimed that he had no time to examine the cases, but spoke about the superiority of Islam," explained Firouz Khanjani, a council member of the Church of Iran movement to Worthy News. "He said that Christians are targeting ignorant people and they should be punished for that."
Advocacy group Middle East Concern (MEC) said it has learned that the Christians, identified as Behrouz Sadegh-Khandjani, Mehdi Furutan, Mohammad Beliad, Parviz Khalaj and Nazly Beliad, were released on bail, but there was no immediate independent confirmation.
Christians have linked the months-long detentions of the believers to their activities within underground house churches linked to the Church of Iran movement.
But prosecutors told the first chamber of the Revolutionary Tribunal of the southwestern city of Shiraz, earlier this month that the believers were held on charges such as "actions against the [state] system", "political meetings" and "contact with opposition groups," according to trial observers.
On Sunday, February 13, they were also to answer in the "120th chamber of a normal tribunal", the charges of 'apostasy', or abandoning Islam, which carries the death penalty in the strict Islamic nation, as well as 'crimes against the Islamic order' Khanjani added.
With the trial being postponed, the believers are expected to face these additional charges in April. Dozens of other Christians remain detained across the country, as part of a government crackdown on Christianity amid reports that many Muslims embrace Christianity and house churches are growing, according rights investigators.
"More than 30 Christians, most from a Muslim background, are understood to still be detained in a number of different cities, including Tehran, Mashhad, Karaj, Shiraz, Ahvaz, Rasht, Hamedan and Arak," MEC told Worthy News.
IRANIAN CHURCH LEADERS
Elam Ministries, a group set-up by Iranian church leaders to encourage Iranian Christians, said among those held in prisons is Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani who has been sentenced to death for apostasy.
Others include Christians "Vahik and Sonia Abrahamian, and Arash and Arezoo Kermanjani" who Elam Ministries said have been in prison in Hamadan for nearly four months. "There has been intense anxiety over Sonia's health, exacerbated by prison conditions," the group said in a statement. "There is also equal concern over, Mojtaba Keshavarz and Shahin Rostami, held in Arak over three months, "especially as Shahin is diabetic."
Relative few Christians have been released of those detained in recent weeks, including four women held in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison on January 29 and one woman and two men from the prison in Isfahan three days earlier, Iranian Christians said.
They spent over a month in prison, most of them in solitary confinement, "solely for being Christians" after they were detained after Christmas 2010 along with over 30 others, according to Elam Ministries.
The group expressed concerns that families of Christians have been told they must pay $180,000 bail to secure their temporary release.
"The experience of prison and interrogation can be very traumatic and some Christians who endure this ordeal then decide to seek asylum in another country. Their families then not only lose their loved ones to exile, but also suffer the dire financial consequences as the state swallows up the bail money."
Elam Ministries said the family of one of recently released women, Sara Akhavan, "had to surrender their trade license, which means that if the authorities deem the bail is broken, the family's livelihood will be destroyed."
Her sister, Leila Akhavan, was still believed to be detained in Evin prison Thursday, February 17.
News of the detentions come amid reports of protests against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his regime, inspired by uprisings that toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt.
Ahmadinejad has denied wrongdoing and his government has defended harsh sentences, including executions of political opponents and Christians as part of defending the Islamic state.
Hardline Iranian lawmakers also urged the judiciary this week to impose death sentences on two major opposition figures, Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi who they held responsible for "fomenting unrest" in which two people died, state television said. (With reporting by Worthy News' Stefan J. Bos).