Iranian officials released Iranian pastor Farshid Fathi from prison after serving five years of his extended seven-year sentence, which was rooted in punishment for his Christian faith.
Six months ago, Fathi failed to appeal an extra year of jail time that was added to his six-year sentence — plus 74 lashes — over an allegation that he had two liters of alcohol inside his prison cell. He received his original sentence for alleged “action against the regime’s security, being in contact with foreign organizations, and religious propaganda.”
Instead of being released on his slated date in December 2017, the pastor was informed by Iranian officials of his Dec. 10. 2015 release earlier this year in July, according to World Watch Monitor — a Christian nonprofit organization serving the persecuted Church.
Fathi was one of the last Christians to be released in a regime purge of Christians that took place several years ago. On Dec. 26, 2010, Fathi was arrested with 60 other Christians — most of whom were members of house churches in Tehran and other Iranian cities outside the capital. The detained Christians were labeled as “extremists” by Tehran’s governor, Morteza Tamadon, on Jan. 4, 2011.
“[The] extremists penetrate the body of Islam like corrupt and deviant people,” Tamadon declared. “[They practice] an extreme form of Christianity like the Taliban and Wahhabis in Islam.”
Never given a trial, the 35-year-old father of two was originally sentenced to serve six years at Evin prison. Iranian officials have not disclosed the details of his courtroom trial proceedings, other than he was officially tried in Jan. 2012.
Addressing the mass arrests of Christians in a speech, Iran Supreme Leader Seyyed Ali Khamenei announced in Oct. 2010 that members of house churches should be “dealt with” by the state. Following the speech, Christians were rounded up in coordinated purges.
“A new wave of surveillance and arrests against Christians followed soon after, with leaders of house church groups, such as Farshid Fathi, especially singled out for longer detentions,” World Watch Monitor reports. “Born into a Muslim family, Fathi became a Christian at the age of 17 and at the time of his arrest, he was working full-time as a pastor and leader of house churches.”
Fathi was not the only pastor targeted in the government raids of house churches.
“Fathi served his sentence alongside another man, Alireza Seyyadian, who was also imprisoned for six years,” the Christian group added. “Seyyadian was arrested as he was trying to leave the country for a holiday at the time of Persian New Year in March 2012, and was also transferred with Fathi to Rajaei-Shahr prison.”
As a member of the non-Trinitarian Church of Iran, Sayyadian’s original six-year prison term included 90 lashes, but he was released in Aug. 2015 after only serving three-and-a-half years. His alleged crime was “acting against national security through collusion, gathering and propagating against the Islamic regime.”
Ongoing purging problem
Detaining church members because of their Christian faith, the Islamic Republic had 90 believers incarcerated in May 2015, according to the American Center for Law and Justice, Middle Eastern Concern and Article 18. This problem is widespread in Iran, which ranked number seven on Open Doors International’s 2015 World Watch List of the top 10 nations in the world that persecute Christians for their faith.
“The main driver of persecution in Iran is ‘Islamic extremism;’ Christians from an Islamic background are especially targeted,” the World Watch List reports. “Increasing numbers of Farsi-speaking churches have been forced to close, some of which have been there for centuries. This is a development that has not been seen in the history of the Church in Iran.”
Persecution in the Islamic Republic has not significantly waned since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ended his eight years in office in 2013.
“Expectations were high when President Rouhani took office in 2013,”Open Doors reports. “However, his powers are limited and, in the short run, no concrete changes are expected for religious minorities.”
Christians are not the only religious group that is oppressed by the Islamic regime.
“[In addition to Christians, Sunni Muslims] cannot enjoy the least amount of freedom,” Mohabat News informed in a post, noting that they are not permitted to build their own mosques in the Iranian capital of Tehran.