A court in Iran has sentenced a 65-year-old convert to Christianity to three years in prison for “insulting Islamic sacred beliefs” even as he is yet to be tried in the court for two other charges, a religious freedom watchdog group has reported.
The U.K.-based group Article 18 reported this week that Ismaeil Maghrebinejad has 20 days to appeal his sentencing and that the court referred to Article 513 of the Islamic Penal Code, which provides for a punishment between one and five years in prison.
Maghrebinejad was convicted for forwarding a message on his phone that allegedly made fun of Iran’s ruling clerics.
The convert was arrested at his home in the south-central region of Shiraz. Iranian security officials have regularly harassed Maghrebinejad for 40 years ever since he accepted Christ, the group said.
He is under trial for two other charges: “propaganda against the Islamic Republic” and “membership of a group hostile to the regime.” Last November, a court dropped another charge, of apostasy, which is punishable with the death penalty in Iran.
He was initially charged for apostasy due to his conversion to Christianity. In its hearing at the time, however, the court said the case against him for engaging in “propaganda against the Islamic Republic” would still apply as he allegedly started a Telegram channel to promote evangelical Christianity.
The convert’s daughter, Mahsa, believes that her father has been targeted at least partially because she and her husband, Nathan, both of whom now live in the U.S., minister to Christians inside Iran over the Internet.
About 10 years after his conversion, there was a murder attempt on Maghrebinejad’s wife but she survived, the group said.
In December, Iran’s Revolutionary Court sentenced nine Christians to a combined total of 45 years in prison for converting to Christianity. The converts were arrested in January and February 2019.
The convicted Christians included Pastor Matthias Haghnejad, Shahrooz Islamdust, Behnam Akhlaqi, Babak Hosseinzadeh, Mehdi Khatibi, Khalil Dehghanpour, Hossein Kadivar, Kamal Naamanian, and Mohammad Vafadar.
Earlier this month, another Iranian Christian convert, a 21-year-old woman, was arrested during an anti-government protest in Tehran.
Fatemeh Mohammadi, also known as Mary, was detained near Azadi Square in Tehran, where protests occurred after the Iranian military shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane and killed 176 people.
Mary had published a series of tweets that day, saying that the Iranian people faced “soft repression” in the country as the regime creates “false beliefs through selective coverage of the news.”
She was arrested also in 2017 during a raid on an underground house church meeting and later sentenced to six months in prison. She served her time in the women’s ward of Iran’s notorious Evin prison.
She wrote an open letter to Iran’s Minister of Intelligence Mahmoud Alavi last May accusing him of targeting Christians and violating the constitution.
Iran ranks as the ninth-worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution on Open Doors USA’s 2020 World Watch List.
Open Doors USA reports that 169 Christians were arrested in Iran during the organisation’s 2019 reporting period — Nov. 1, 2018, to Oct. 31, 2019. Iran has also consistently been labeled by the U.S. State Department as a “country of particular concern” for egregious violations of religious freedom.