ISTANBUL, Turkey (Morning Star News) – A convert from Islam in Iran sentenced to serve almost four years in prison for Christian activities has gone on a hunger strike to protest the government’s refusal to grant his request for release, religious freedom advocates said.
Vahid Hakkani began his hunger strike on March 20 after authorities denied him the conditional release that inmates are eligible to obtain after completing half their prison terms.
A researcher and advocate for Middle East Concern said that the willingness of Hakkani to possibly starve himself to death is a reflection of the conditions religious prisoners in Iran face.
“Sadly, the harsh conditions that have led Vahid to stage this hunger strike are conditions that many other prisoners of conscience are experiencing: a harsh conviction and sentence following an unjust trial, the refusal to grant release on bail, inadequate provision of medical care, and a dangerous and overcrowded prison environment,” the researcher told Morning Star News. “The hunger strike demonstrates the level of Vahid’s desperation, and the timing [coinciding with the Nowruz Iranian New Year celebrations] is poignant.”
Authorities arrested Hakkani on Feb. 8, 2012, along with several others at a house-church meeting, and charged him with numerous criminal offenses related to his faith. Hakkani was tried with three others over the course of two court hearings, one on Oct. 15, 2012 and another on Dec. 28, 2012. In June 2013, the Shiraz Revolutionary Court issued a verdict, finding all four guilty on charges of attending a house church, spreading Christianity, having contact with foreign ministries, propaganda against the regime and disrupting national security, according to advocacy groups.
Hakkani is still recovering from treatment of serious health problems, which his hunger strike could worsen. In November 2013, authorities granted him leave for two months for surgical treatment of intestinal hemorrhoids so severe that he was losing up to one-third of a liter of blood daily because of internal bleeding. Two weeks into his hunger strike, his condition was already starting to worsen, according to Mohabat News.
Fighting House Churches
Iranian officials continued their attempts to harass the Alborz Province house-church movement in March. Officials of the Central Prison in Karaj on March 5 searched the cell of Behnam Irani, leader of a house-church movement in Karaj. They seized his Bible, Christian books and other literature in his cell, according to human rights activists.
On the same day, security officials arrested Amin Khaki, an assistant pastor in a fellowship led by Irani, along with seven other Christians at a picnic in Shoush, in Khuzestan Province, according to Present Truth Ministries. Security officials questioned those detained and then released all of them except Khaki and Hossein Barunzadeh, the two Christians for whom they had warrants, and Rahmen Bahman. All were still in prison at press time.
Jason Demars, president of Present Truth Ministries, said he thinks the timing of the arrests and the raid on Irani’s prison cell were planned.
“We believe it was not a coincidence. VEVAK [internal security police] often coordinates arrests,” Demars told Morning Star News. “In 2010, several pastors from the Church of Iran denomination were arrested on the same day – from Shiraz to Tehran to Rasht. The next day a house-church service was raided, and a pastor and several members of the church were arrested as well. It simply shows that VEVAK spends a great deal of time planning the persecution of Christians.”
The advocate for Middle East Concern said the arrests fit a pattern of intimidation by the Iranian government.
“Church leaders in Iran increasingly point to what they believe to be carefully orchestrated campaigns to undermine church networks, particularly by ‘squeezing’ church leaders through harsh restrictions and intimidation tactics,” he said. “While it is hard to know the precise motivations in the case of Behnam, the series of actions against his associates [including raids on homes in the Karaj area in December, and the arrests in Shoush earlier in March] seem to fit this pattern.”
Irani has long been under the microscope of the Iranian government. He was first arrested in December 2006 for evangelizing and holding house-church meetings and then released on bail in January 2007. In February 2008, a court sentenced him to five years in prison but immediately suspended the sentence, essentially giving Irani five years of probation, so that his sentence could be brought into effect at the slightest infraction against the government.
Continuing his Christian work unabated, Irani was arrested again on April 14, 2010. Authorities charged him with spreading Christianity, attending house-church meetings and committing other crimes against “national security.” Behman was released on bail in June 2010.
In January 2010 he was convicted and ordered to serve a one-year sentence in prison. On May 31, 2011, when he showed up to start serving his sentence, he was informed that the suspension on the five-year sentence had been revoked.
On March 2, Armenian Christian Sevada Aghasar was released from Tehran’s Evin Prison on bail. Aghasar was arrested in Karaj on Aug. 21, 2013 after plain-clothes security authorities raided his office while he was inside with two converts from Islam. Mohabat News reported that one of the two converts may have been released as well. No charges have been filed yet against Aghasar.
As Aghasar was leaving prison, Alireza Seyyendian, a convert from Islam, was returning from a five-day leave. In November 2011 he was convicted on charges of spreading propaganda against the regime and acting against national security. He is serving a three-and-a-half-year sentence in prison, which he started serving in March 2012.
U.S.-Iranian pastor Saeed Abedini continues to recover in a private hospital for chronic pain in his stomach, according to the American Center for Law and Justice, a U.S.-based group advocating on behalf of Abedini and his wife. According to Mohabat News, Abedini was moved from Rajai Shahr Prison on March 6.
Mohabat News reported that at first he was receiving decent food and medicine for the first time in months. Earlier this week, however, Mohabat reported that doctors began withholding treatment from Abedini, and that security officers had shackled him to his hospital bed. The ACLJ has not publically confirmed reports of abuse but did state that Abedini had not received needed surgery.
Demars said that despite promises of reform from the government during the most recent elections, there has been no meaningful change in the way the government deals with Christians.
“Everyone knows the Ayatollah [Ali Hosseini] Khamenei [Supreme Leader of Iran] rules the country along with VEVAK, not the president and other elected officials,” Demars said. “The trend is more of the same; coordinated efforts on the part of VEVAK and the revolutionary courts to persecute Christians openly – threats, confiscation of materials, interrogations, brutality, guns pulled on peaceful people worshiping God and prison stays.”
Middle East Concern noted that the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in Iran, in his most recent report last month, said that at least 49 Christians were imprisoned in Iran for their faith.
“The house-church movement has been designated at the highest level as a threat to national security,” the researcher said.
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