The COVID-19 crisis in Iran has resulted in freedom for several Christians among the roughly 85,000 people released from prison, but convictions have continued in spite of a short-lived lull in actions against converts to Christianity, sources said.
The release of imprisoned Christians as part of the regime's efforts to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus was pragmatic and not an indication of a change of policy by the Iranian government, rights advocates said.
"For a time it looked like the authorities were too busy with coronavirus to bother with the Christians," a researcher at Middle East Concern (MEC) told Morning Star News. "Now we know they have really turned their attention again to targeting Christian converts."
On April 21 Christian convert Mary (Fatemeh) Mohammadi, 21, was sentenced to flogging and three months plus one day in prison for taking part in a January protest in Tehran over the downing of Ukranian Airlines Flight 752 by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran. Though the case is unrelated to her faith, since previously serving a six-month prison sentence for charges due to Christian activity, Mohammadi has been harassed and denied education, according to MEC.
In the hearing, the judged asked Mohammadi about her Christian faith, although it had no bearing on the charges of "disturbing public order" that she faced, raising concerns as to whether her faith influenced the judge's handling of the case.
Mohammadi will not appeal her sentence, which has been suspended due to the coronavirus crisis.
Mohammadi's court hearing was suspended in April due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The MEC researcher said he was surprised that the court pursued the charges despite recent postponements within the judicial system.
"Personally, I thought they would have given priority to more serious cases," he said.
Similarly, multiple sentences handed down to Christian convert Ismaeili Maghrebinejad based on virtually no evidence remain in effect, alarming advocates.
Maghrebinejad, 65, was sentenced to two years in prison on Feb. 27 for "membership of a group hostile to the regime" for receiving a Bible verse from Philippians from a Christian media organization, according to MEC. According to a court document, the organization advocates "Evangelical Zionist Christianity," which is not tolerated by the regime.
When appealing the sentence, instead of a reprieve, Maghrebinejad was given an additional one year for "propaganda against the state."
This followed a three-year sentence for "insulting Islamic sacred beliefs," in a civil court hearing on Jan. 8. The crime: Maghrebinejad had responded to a joke on social media deemed critical of the clergy -- with a smiley face emoji.
"This was the only evidence that they could find after arresting him without cause and searching his house without a warrant," the MEC researcher told Morning Star News. "This is very disturbing. This is an elderly man. His family is not living in the country anymore, and he is really being targeted by the authorities. They are determined."
Maghrebinejad is released on bail and appealing all three convictions.
The disappointing conviction came on the heels of more positive developments due to the virus, including the release of Christian converts Amin Khaki, Rokhsareh (Mahrokh) Ghanbari and Fatemeh Bakhteri.
The three Christians initially were released temporarily on bail of several thousand dollars, but as the novel coronavirus crisis continued, so did their release.
Khaki was released conditionally on March 2 after paying a bail bond and serving eight months of a 14-month sentence for "propaganda against the regime and establishing house churches." Roughly one month later, Khaki was notified that he was not required to return.
After serving about seven months of their one-year sentences for "spreading propaganda against the regime," Ghanbari and Bakhteri were also released temporarily in March.
Prison authorities informed Ghanbari in early April that she was not required to return, while Bakhteri was informed that her temporary release was extended, according to advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).
Remaining in Prison
Several other Christians with longer sentences remain in prison despite the threat of contracting the virus, including pastor Yousef Nadarkani and three others arrested with him -- Mohammadreza Omidi, Yasser Mossaybzadeh and Saheb Fadaie.
All four are still serving 10-year sentences handed down in June 2017 for charges of "acting against the national security through propagating house churches and promoting Zionist Christianity," according to CSW.
They requested furlough due to several coronavirus cases within some of the wards of Evin Prison, according to MEC, but it was denied.
Nadarkani's case was reviewed by the revolutionary court in May, but the outcome is unknown, according a Middle East expert at CSW. He said it was unclear why Pastor Nadarkani has not been released.
"I guess he is a very high-profile case, so maybe to give a message to the Iranian society, and especially Iranian Christian converts, that, 'Don't think we are relaxing our policies -- it is just temporary,'" he said.
Advocates are hoping that more prisoners will be released permanently, and that those who were first released temporarily will be able to retrieve bail amounts that are often several thousand dollars.
The novel coronavirus hit Iran hard economically, and released Christian converts experience an additional layer of suffering, as it is harder for those targeted by the government to find jobs, the Middle East specialist at CSW said. They and potential employers are often harassed, eventually forcing them to leave the country.
The recent releases are largely image control by the Iranian government, he added.
"This serves the Iranian propaganda, because they release the prisoner," he said. "They get some credit for that...but they make life so difficult for them that they have to leave Iran. They use these tactics to sort of dissuade and discourage others form converting or expressing their new faith in public."
Iran was ranked ninth on Christian support organization Open Doors' 2020 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.