Iran Frees Christian Converts Over Coronavirus Concerns

Sunday, April 5, 2020

By Stefan J. Bos, Special Correspondent Worthy News

(Worthy News) - Iran has released a Christian woman who was jailed after refusing to reconvert to Islam, activists confirmed to Worthy News. Rokhsareh (Mahrokh) Ghanbari, 62, is among some 85,000 prisoners freed in recent weeks amid concerns about the spread of the new coronavirus COVID-19.

Rights groups had warned authorities that the country's overcrowded prisons could become a hotbed for the disease. But advocacy group Middle East Concern (MEC) cautioned that not all Christians behind bars are given permanent or temporary leave from prison, despite the deadly pandemic. "Those Christians convicted on political charges, such as" acting against national security," have been refused release, along with other political prisoners," MEC explained in a statement to Worthy News.

Ghanbari was reportedly detained last year on charges of "propaganda against the system" of the strict Islamic republic after converting to Christianity and attending house churches. Iranian security forces raided her home in the city of Karaj, detaining her and three other Christian converts, Christians explained. After refusing to reconvert to Islam, Ghanbari was eventually given a one-year sentence. She served just over four months of her prison term, but does not have to return to prison, friends stressed.

The Christian woman also hopes to receive back the 30 million tomans (around $2,000) she deposited for bail, according to Christians familiar with the case. She made headlines last year when U.S. Vice President Mike Pence demanded her freedom and expressed his support for religious minorities in Iran. Besides Ghanbari, at least six other Christian converts were given temporary leave from prison, said Article 18, another advocacy group involved in her case. Among them are Fatemeh (Aylar) Bakhteri and Amin Khaki, both 36, who had their leave extended until April 18, the group explained.

Earlier in February, Assyrian-Iranian Christian Ramiel Bet-Tamraz, 35, was released from prison three weeks ahead of schedule, activists said. On the same day, Christian convert Fatemeh (Mary) Mohammadi, 21, were freed on a bail of 30 million tomans ($2,000), pending a court hearing postponed to April 14. Mohammadi publicly called the scheduling of court cases, and jailing people amid the coronavirus crisis a "crime against humanity. Two other Christian converts also released recently were not identified amid security concerns, Article 18 said.

Officials may also free Majidreza Souzanchi, 36, who is completing his two-year sentence, Christians said. He and the other released believers faced similar charges linked to their conversion to Christianity, according to trial observers. Iranian authorities have stepped up a perceived crackdown on Christian converts amid government concerns about the spread of Christianity among Muslims here. Local Christians have urged prayers for the former Muslims facing trials in Iran.