Iran frees imprisoned pastor two years early, but arrests a Christian convert

In welcome and unexpected news, Pastor Farshid Fathi was released from Iran’s Rajaei-Shahr prison on 21 December, two years before his scheduled release date. But another convert to Christianity, Maysam Hojati, was arrested on 23 December when plain-clothed security officials raided his parents’ home and granted temporary release on 6 January after enduring twelve days of solitary confinement, beatings, and long interrogations.

Pastor Fathi spent just under five years in prison after he was arrested on 26 December 2010 as part of a crackdown on the house church movement by Iranian authorities. The father of two was officially charged in 2012 with “acting against national security through membership of a Christian organisation, collection of funds, [and] propaganda against the Islamic Regime by helping spread Christianity in the country” and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. After his arrest he was initially held in solitary confinement and subjected to brutal interrogations.

In 2014, he was sentenced to an extra year in prison after he was falsely accused of possessing alcohol while being held in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison. He was later transferred to Rajaei-Shahr prison in the city of Karaj.

Prison authorities told Pastor Fathi in July 2015 that he could be released early in December, but having previously been given false promises, he could not be certain that they would not backtrack on their promise.

Pastor Fathi, now 36 years of age, was 17 when he came to faith in Christ after converting from Islam. Muslim-background converts to Christianity are persecuted by Iranian authorities and meet secretly in house churches.

On 23 December, four security officials slapped and handcuffed a 34-year-old convert to Christ, Maysam Hojati, at his parents’ home and arrested him. They searched the house and seized some personal items, including his computer and mobile phone, as well as some Bibles, hymn books and Christian literature. Finally, they took down his Christmas tree and took him away, blindfolded.

He was held in solitary confinement in a windowless, five-metre-square cell. During that time, he was interrogated for ten to twelve hours a day, according to Mohabat News. They asked him about his contact with foreign churches, house church meetings and the distribution of Bibles. When he would not give them the answers they wanted, they beat him and threatened him.

On 6 January, he was formally charged with apostasy, evangelism, distributing Bibles and planting house churches. After meeting the extortionate bail payment of one million Iranian Rial (around £23,000; €30,000; US$35,000), he was granted temporary release until he is summoned for a hearing.

According to the Christian Post, nine more believers were arrested on 25 December for worshipping together in a house church in the city of Shiraz.

More than 400 Christians have been arrested since 2012 in Iran, according to Mohabat News. Christians come under particular threat over the Christmas period when authorities often clamp down on house churches.

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