Two Iranian Christian Women Acquitted of all Charges

Young converts previously held in prison for Christian activities have fled country.

ISTANBUL, May 27 (CDN) — Nearly five months after releasing them from prison, an Iranian court has acquitted two women of all charges related to being Christians and engaging in Christian activities.

Iranians Maryam Rostampour and Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad were arrested on March 5, 2009 and detained on charges of “acting against state security,” “taking part in illegal gatherings” and “apostasy” (leaving Islam) under Iran’s Revolutionary Court system.

After nearly eight months, on Nov. 18, 2009 authorities released them conditionally.

Although the court hearing their case originally set April 13 as their trial date, Compass was unable to confirm on what date the two women were acquitted, nor the conditions of their acquittal.

Senior Iranian judges and officials repeatedly intimidated the two women and pressured them to recant their faith, according to a press statement by Elam Ministries last week.

“They were warned that any future Christian activity in Iran will be seriously dealt with,” according to the statement.

Elam Ministries said the two women had fled Iran on Saturday (May 22) to an undisclosed location and were recovering.

Another Iranian convert who was forced to flee his country under similar circumstances years ago told Compass that he believed the intense lobbying efforts to release and acquit the women brought the government to an unspoken “standoff” with Christian rights groups outside the country.

“I think the court just made a political decision, ‘We will let you go, but we will not allow you to stay in the country,’” said the Iranian Christian, who requested anonymity. “That’s a pretty old-fashioned procedure they have – ‘We will let you go if you leave the country. You can have your faith, but not here.’”

In general, when Iranian authorities arrest Christians, they release them on bail within a few weeks and keep their case files open, thus applying soft pressure while allowing them to continue living in Iran. In cases where the government wants to remove Christians from the country because of their Christian activities, authorities have handed the Christians their passports and documents and told them to leave.

Iran’s government views all Christian activities as foreign intervention and thus a threat to national security. The two women’s families had hired a private lawyer.

Since their release, the young converts to Christianity had been waiting for a trial date and decision from an Iranian court to decide their fate as Christians living their faith. During this time, sources said that authorities watched them closely and that the two women were under “pressure” and received threatening phone calls.

“The government would not want them to stay in the country as heroes,” said the Iranian Christian. “It would be better for the government if they left Iran and didn’t become a positive example for the rest of the Christian community in Iran. Otherwise they would create a precedent of [Christians] who have not denied their faith, who have been acquitted and still live as Christians inside the country.”

The two women thanked Christians who have been praying for them, according to Elam.

“We hope to eventually share some of what the Lord allowed us to go through to highlight the need and the opportunity for the church in Iran, but right now we will take time to pray and seek the Lord for His will,” said Rostampour, according to Elam’s press statement.

Iran’s Constitution gives Christians “protected” religious minority status, but in practice they face substantial societal discrimination, according to the U.S. Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report 2009.

An article mandating death for apostates in accordance with sharia (Islamic law) reportedly has been stricken from a draft penal code, but experts on Iran say The Council of Guardians and Iran’s Supreme Leader still have the final say on who receives capital punishment for leaving Islam.

Report from Compass Direct News

Iran Releases Two Christian Women from Evin Prison

No bail required; charges of ‘proselytizing’ and ‘apostasy’ remain.

ISTANBUL, November 18 (CDN) — Two Christian Iranian women, Maryam Rostampour, 27, and Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad, 30, were released from prison this afternoon with no bail amid an international campaign calling for their freedom since their arrest on March 5.

The two women, whose health deteriorated while in detention at the notorious Evin prison in Tehran, are at their homes recovering from their nine-month ordeal, an Iranian source told Compass. They still could face charges of proselytizing and “apostasy,” or leaving Islam.

The women were released at 3:30 p.m.

“Words are not enough to express our gratitude to the Lord and to His people who have prayed and worked for our release,” the two women said in a statement from United Kingdom-based Elam Ministries.

The women’s lawyer had been working to secure their release, and although they were expected to be released yesterday, he was not able to do so because of the high bail the court was demanding. The Compass source said that it was too soon to determine how the lawyer was able to secure their release without bail today, a rarity for Christians released from prison in Iran.

The source credited their release to international lobbying and pressure on the Iranian government.

“It was from the international pressure, and also the government couldn’t handle it anymore,” said the source. “Already their detention was illegal. At the same time, the government wasn’t ready to prosecute them for apostasy. They already have many headaches. They cannot handle everything.”

The source said he suspected the two women will be very closely watched and would not have full freedom of movement, limiting their contact with others.

“It is too soon to give all the details,” he said. “It is not just about them. When people get out of jail we need time to get information … it is very difficult.”

Rostampour and Esmaeilabad were arrested in March and detained on charges of “acting against state security,” “taking part in illegal gatherings” and apostasy under Iran’s Revolutionary Court system.

On Aug. 9 the women appeared before a judge who pressured them to recant their faith and return to Islam or spend more time in prison. The two women refused. Last month, on Oct. 7, they were acquitted of the charge of “anti-state activities,” and their case was transferred to the General Court.

The charges of proselytizing and apostasy remain against them but are not handled by the Revolutionary Court. While proselytizing and apostasy are not crimes specified in the current Penal Code, judges are required to use their knowledge of Islamic law in cases where no codified law exists.

With a draft penal code that may include an article mandating death for apostates in accordance to sharia (Islamic law) still under parliamentary review, experts on Iran fear things may get worse for the country’s converts from Islam.

Elam reported that the women were “doing as well as could be expected, and are rejoicing in the Lord’s faithfulness to them.” The women reportedly lost a lot of weight during their imprisonment. Esmaeilabad suffered from back pain, an infected tooth and intense headaches, and Rostampour got severe food poisoning last month.

Elam requested continued prayers as the women may still be called to court hearings. The Iranian source said that all Christians released from prison in the last year have pending court cases against them, but almost none of them have been given court dates.

“Maryam and Marzieh have greatly inspired us all,” Director of Elam Ministries Sam Yeghnazar said today in a press statement. “Their love for the Lord Jesus and their faithfulness to God has been an amazing testimony.”

A member of Open Doors, one of many ministries that mobilized prayer support for the two women internationally, expressed gratitude for the two women’s release but cautioned that continued prayers were necessary until they were completely out of danger.

“Open Doors is so thankful for the release of these two women, and we praise God that they are safely home now,” said an Open Doors field worker who requested anonymity. “But we continue to pray for them, for physical and mental health. Open Doors also thanks the worldwide Christian family for their prayers for them, but we urge our brothers and sisters to not stop praying. They still have a path to go.”

Compass has also learned that on Oct. 13 the leader of a large network of churches in the northern city of Rasht was arrested and is still in prison. Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani has had contact with his family and has been pressured to recant his faith and return to Islam, according to an Iranian Christian who requested anonymity. Nadarkhani is married and has two children under the age of 10.

Another source confirmed that while six of the 24 Christians who were arrested in a police raid on July 31 in the area of Fashan north of Tehran have been released, one identified as Shaheen remains in prison unable to pay bail for his release.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Proposed amendment reportedly shot down after international outcry.

LOS ANGELES, June 29 (Compass Direct News) – A member of Iran’s Parliament reportedly revealed last week that the country’s Parliamentary Committee has stricken the mandatory death penalty for those who leave Islam from proposals for an amended penal code.

Citing a BBC Persian news service report on Tuesday (June 23), United Kingdom-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) announced on Friday (June 26) that a member of Iran’s Legal and Judicial Committee of Parliament, Ali Shahrokhi, had told the Iranian state news agency (IRNA) of the decision to eliminate the mandatory death penalty amendment, which had drawn international protests.

The Parliamentary Committee had come under intense international pressure to drop clauses from the Islamic Penal Code Bill that allowed stoning and made death the mandatory punishment for apostates.

The new penal code was originally approved in September 2008 by a preliminary parliamentary vote of 196-7.

In Friday’s statement, CSW said that the bill must now pass through a final parliamentary vote before being sent to Iran’s most influential body, the Guardian Council, which will rule on it.

The council is made up of six conservative theologians appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by Parliament. This body has the power to veto any bill it deems inconsistent with the constitution and Islamic law.

The Christian and Baha’i communities of Iran are most likely to be affected by this decision. Iran has been criticized for its treatment of Baha’is, Zoroastrians and Christians, who have all suffered under the current regime.

Joseph Grieboski, president of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, said the timing of the announcement of the decision during protests over contested elections might not be coincidental.

“Were the regime to maintain [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad’s presidency then pass and enforce a restrictive penal code, the international pressure on Iran would be unbearable for the regime,” said Grieboski. “I do not consider it a sign of opening up. Instead, I see it as a sign of self-preservation.”

Security Backlash

Huge protests over the election results demonstrated considerable opposition to the Iranian government’s heavy-handed tactics, and although the official churches have taken no official stance, many Christians have supported the opposition, according to sources connected to social networking sites.

In the face of the massive protests, a spokesman for the foreign ministry, Hassan Qashqavi, released a statement condemning Western involvement in Iranian affairs and accusing the BBC and Voice of America networks of spreading “anarchy and vandalism.”

This passing of blame bodes ill for minorities in the country, including Christians, whom the Iranian government sees as pawns of the West; they could expect even harsher treatment in a feared post-election clamp-down.

“Since minorities, especially Baha’is and Christians, are often seen as fronts for the West, we can expect that they will feel the greatest backlash by the regime during the protests, and I would argue an even worse crackdown on them if Ahmadinejad and [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei come out of this,” said Grieboski.

An Iranian Christian who requested anonymity told Compass that both Christians and Iranians as a whole were tired of the dictatorial regime and asked for prayers for relief.

“The people are really tired, they have no hope, mentally, financially, spiritually, it is really difficult to live in Iran,” the source said. “You can’t have a private life, you can’t make a decision about what you believe, women can’t even decide what to wear. We just pray for the whole nation.”

The Iranian source was reticent to predict how the government might react to Christians following the elections but said that if there were a reaction, they could be among the first victims.

“So what the reaction of the government will be we can’t be 100 percent sure,” the source said, “but they could have a very radical reaction.”

Iranian Christians Maryam Rostampour, 27, and Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad, 30, who were arrested on March 5 for their Christian activities, are still held in the notorious Evin Prison. The facility has drawn criticism for its human rights violations and executions in recent years.

Compass has learned that the women have been placed in solitary confinement.

Report from Compass Direct News


Government trying to quell Christian son’s human rights activities.

LOS ANGELES, May 20 (Compass Direct News) – In an attempt to silence a Christian human rights activist living in England, Iranian authorities arrested and interrogated his Muslim father for six days before releasing him yesterday .

Abdul Zahra Vashahi, a retired 62-year-old suffering a heart condition, was arrested on Thursday (May 14) in Iran’s southwestern city of Bandar Mahshahr and interrogated about the human rights activities of his son, a Christian convert who has been living in England since 2003. His son, John (Reza) Vashahi, converted to Christianity while in England and in 2008 founded the Iranian Minorities Human Rights Organization (IMHRO).

In February the elder Vashahi had received a call from local authorities telling him that if his son didn’t stop his activities, they would arrest him instead.

While his father was in custody, authorities asked the elder Vashahi many questions about his son’s activities and had him fill out forms with detailed information about his extended family and friends.

“He is very tired, because the interrogations were very long,” his son told Compass. “All the questions were about me.”

The younger Vashahi said the Iranian government started putting increased pressure on his family, whom he has not seen in six years, since he founded IMHRO.

“It is a good example of harassment even outside the country,” Vashahi told Compass by telephone today. “It is just showing how far the government will go if we let them. Inside we can’t talk, and we come to Europe and still they want to silence us; it’s a very worrying sign.”

Vashahi, unlike his father, was involved in politics when he lived in Iran. His family belongs to Iran’s Arab-speaking community, the Ahwazi, most of whom live in the southwestern province of Khuzestan.

He said that even when he was living there, police had come to his father’s workplace to ask him questions, but that after he fled the country six years ago, the pressure seemed to have stopped. It began anew when he became an outspoken Christian campaigning for the rights of minorities in Iran and especially with the establishment of IMHRO, he said.

The activist is an active member of Amnesty International, and through his own organization he publicizes Iran’s human rights violations of minorities, especially Christians. He has also started a blog called “Jesus for Arabs.”

Fighting for Minority Rights

Vashahi acknowledged that his family, which is Muslim, was never happy with his choice of faith or vocation.

Asked whether he believed the government arrested his father because of his faith or his work, the younger Vashahi said, “I think it’s both, because part of my human rights activity is in regard to Christians in Iran, and we’ve been in touch with Christians and persecuted churches.”

The 30-year-old activist said that when the Revolutionary Guard arrested his father, they confiscated all of his books and compact discs, as well as a computer and his sister’s university dentistry textbooks.

“It’s a bad situation, and I hope we find some solution,” Vashahi said, “No one has the right to talk about anything in Iran. Suppression of the church is increasing in Iran; they don’t want us to talk about that. They don’t want us to talk about it inside, and also they want to silence us outside.”

Vashahi said that despite the government pressure, he is not planning to stop his human rights activism.

“I’m not going to be silent, because if I do, then I’m accepting their logic, which means I caused the arrest of my dad,” Vashahi said. “My dad is innocent, and that system is wrong to arrest someone instead of somebody else.”

In 2008, when deciding to establish the IMHRO, he said he felt torn between confronting Iran’s injustices and wanting to ignore them from his comfortable, safe distance.

“Another part of me was saying, ‘you are safe now, but you should do your fair share, you should make noise, and if people inside can’t talk and you are outside and you don’t want to talk, how will people learn what is happening?’” he said. “I felt responsibility, and in the end that part won.”

In a phone conversation with his mother yesterday while his father was sleeping to recover from his time in prison, he said he felt that she was choosing her words very carefully. She told him not to contact them or other family and friends.

“She emphasized that we are all Muslims, and that this is an Islamic country,” Vashahi said. “So she was giving me hints that it [the arrest] had to do with the change of religion.”

Although there were no official charges against his father, Vashahi said it is possible that authorities still could take him to court or detain him again for more interrogation.

“I hope this doesn’t happen again,” he said. “In fact, they’ve taken my family as hostage. They did this type of policy to other people and they’ve always failed, and I don’t know why they keep doing it, because people like me they are not going to stop. Others didn’t stop, and they’re just bringing more condemnation on themselves and exposing themselves to more condemnation in the eyes of the world.”

New Wave of Arrests

Compass has learned of four confirmed arrests of Christians in the last two weeks in the capital city of Tehran, while sources said a new wave of arrests has rolled across the country.

Authorities have been warning arrested Christians not to speak to foreign news agencies.

“The government is treating people like they don’t want them to talk,” said a source. “The government is really afraid of international news agencies, they really don’t like them. That is why they put pressure on the believers, and they are really scared.”

Although in most cases of arrests and interrogations Christians have been released with no physical harm, a source said in some instances they were told to sign papers that they would stop Christian activities and were threatened if they continued.

“It’s happening everywhere,” said the source. “This is the strategy of the government. They are doing it everywhere.”

Maryam Rostampour, 27, and Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad, 30, are in their second month of detention at the notorious Evin prison house in Tehran, accused of “acting against state security” and “taking part in illegal gatherings.”

Report from Compass Direct News


Held with no legal counsel for over a month, they suffer illness in notorious prison.

LOS ANGELES, April 13 (Compass Direct News) – Accused of “acting against state security” and “taking part in illegal gatherings,” two Iranian Christian women have been held in a Tehran prison for over a month in a crowded cell with no access to legal representation.

Amnesty International, in an appeal for urgent action last week, reported that authorities have made the accusations known but have imprisoned the women without filing official charges. The organization called on Iranian authorities to release them and expressed concern for their health.

Maryam Rostampour, 27, and Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad, 30, who were active in church activities and distributing Bibles according to Amnesty’s appeal, were arrested on March 5. They are being held in the detention center of Evin Prison, a facility that has drawn criticism for its human rights violations and executions in recent years. Amnesty’s appeal included a call to urge Iranian officials to ensure that the women are not being tortured.

Based on a telephone conversation between Esmaeilabad and a third party on March 28, Amnesty reported that Esmaeilabad said both are suffering from infection and high fever and had not received adequate medical care. The women continue to be detained in an overcrowded cell with 27 other women. Amnesty said they “may be prisoners of conscience, detained solely on account of their religious beliefs.”

The women are allowed a one-minute call each day and a weekly visit from family. Authorities have informed their family members that the women are accused of “acting against state security” and “taking part in illegal gatherings,” according to the report, and that they would be released after payment of a $400,000 bail. The families have presented the title deeds of their homes as bail but are still waiting for approval from the judge.

Initially the Ministry of Intelligence summoned one of the women, and then took her to the apartment the two shared. There they were officially arrested, and authorities confiscated computers, books and Bibles. The two women were interrogated and held at different police stations.

On March 18 they appeared before Branch 2 of the Islamic Revolutionary Court in Tehran and subsequently transferred to Evin Prison, said the report.

Even if the women are released on bail, they still have to stand trial. Accusations have not included “apostasy,” or leaving Islam, though investigations are ongoing. It is not known whether the women are converts from Islam.

Last September the Iranian Parliament approved review of a new penal code calling for a mandatory death sentence for “apostates.” Under current law death sentences for apostasy have been issued only under judicial interpretations of sharia (Islamic law).

Under the new penal code, male “apostates” would be executed, while females would receive life sentences. The new code was sent to Iran’s most influential body, the Guardian Council, which is expected to rule on it. The council is made up of six conservative theologians appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by Parliament. This council has the power to veto any bill it deems inconsistent with the constitution and Islamic law.

Converts to Christianity in Iran risk harassment, arrest and attack from authorities even though Article 23 of the Iranian Constitution grants that individual beliefs are private and no one can be “molested or taken to task” for holding them. Iran has also signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states that everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

“This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching,” the covenant states.

The last Iranian Christian convert from Islam executed by the Iranian government was Hossein Soodmand in 1990. He was accused of working as “an American spy.” Since then at least six Protestant pastors have been assassinated by unknown killers.

Report from Compass Direct News