ISTANBUL, Turkey (Morning Star News) – In what was termed a “serious blow” to house-church leader Behnam Irani, Iran has sentenced him and two other Christian leaders to six years in prison for their involvement in house churches, human rights groups learned this week.
Irani, Abdolreza Ali-Haghnejad and Reza Rabbani, all leaders in the Church of Iran, were sentenced on Sunday (Oct. 19) for “action against national security” and “creating a network to overthrow the system,” catch-all terms the Islamist government uses to suppress Christians and political opponents it perceives as threats.
The sentence was “a serious blow” for the family of Irani, lead pastor of the group, said a pastor in direct contact with members of Irani’s family. When the verdict was handed down, Irani was already serving the remainder of a prior five-year sentence for his involvement with house churches.
Irani’s wife, Kristina, is resolute in her faith and in her devotion to her husband but needs prayer, said the pastor, who cannot be identified for security reasons. Irani won’t be eligible for release until 2023, according to Middle East Concern (MEC).
As part of their sentences, the three Christians will be transferred from their current locations to other prisons in remote areas around the country, according to human rights groups. Ali-Haghnejad and Rabbani will be transferred within days to Minab Prison on a remote island in the Persian Gulf. Irani will be transferred to Zabol Prison on the Afghanistan border.
There is some confusion however, as to when Irani will be transferred. Some human rights groups said the transfer will take place within days, but others said he will be transferred sometime in 2017, when his prior sentence is complete.
Charges were leveled against Irani in part because he contacted family members and others by mobile phones that had been snuck into prison, according to Rob Duncan, a researcher at MEC who specializes in Iran. The sentence amounts to a form of exile to put him “out of the way” from any support networks or family, Duncan said.
“He was certainly contacting people, and they basically want to remove him as far away as possible from opportunities for visits,” he said.
Jason Demars, president of Present Truth Ministries, an evangelical group that works in Iran, agreed with Duncan’s assessment.