By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent Worthy News
TEHRAN (Worthy News) - Iran has released two Christian converts who served a one-year prison sentence linked to their membership of a house church, but one of them still faces two years’ internal exile, Christians told Worthy News.
Sasan Khosravi, 36, and Habib Heydari, 40, were released January 20 from Bushehr Central Prison, Worthy News learned.
They had begun their sentences in February 2021 but were sent on leave from prison in March. That leave was extended several times before they were summoned in November to serve the remainder of their sentences.
In comments shared with Worthy News, Iranian Christians said they “are thankful that Sasan Khosravi and Habib Heydari have been released early from Bushehr Central Prison.”
However, they remain concerned as Khosravi, a hotel manager, faces two years of exile away from the southern port city Bushehr. The town of exile will be determined by the court, according to sources familiar with the case.
During his time in exile, he will be barred from employment in the hospitality sector, Christian’s said, making it difficult for him to survive in the economically troubled Islamic nation.
FAR FROM HOME
Christians forced into internal exile in recent years have reportedly been sent more than 1,000 kilometers (1,600 miles) from their hometowns.
Khosravi and Heydari were among seven Christians sentenced in June 2020 on charges of “propaganda against the state through promoting Christianity” under Iran’s Islamic Penal Code.
Judge Hedayat Rahavi also found Khosravi and Heydari and his brother Sam guilty of “organizing house churches and the promotion of Christianity, which are clear examples of propaganda against the state.”
The group of seven, which also included the wives of Khosravi and Heydari and a fourth man, Pooriya Peyma, received sentences ranging from jail to internal exile or fines and work restrictions, Christians said.
Separately, Sam Heydari’s wife Maryam was reportedly banned for life from working for any national institution, including the hospital where she had served for 20 years.
It comes amid pressure on other Christians, including Roksari Kanbari, a Christian convert from Islam, who already served prison time for “propaganda against the regime.”
Kannari, 64, was summoned to appear before a prosecutor in her hometown of Karaj by January 19 to answer the same charge again, said Barnabas Fund, an advocacy group.
Barnabas Fund suggested there was some hope for her despite the legal wrangling. “In November 2021, a judge in the city of Dezful issued a significant decision when he acquitted eight Christian converts of “propaganda activities in favor of anti-regime groups.” That ruling suggested that “religious conversion” is not criminalized in Iran’s strict Islamic Penal Code.
Iranian Christians said that amid the legal wrangling, they prayed that those released would “enjoy their present freedom with their families.” They pray that the Christian facing exile “will find accommodation and employment.”
Christians say they hope Iran’s Islamic authorities will stop the “persecution” of minority Christians and other religious communities.
Iran ranks 9th on the annual Open Doors’ World Watch List of 50 nations where it says Christians face the most persecution.
“Converts from Islam to Christianity are most at risk of persecution, especially by the government and to a lesser extent by society and their own families,” says advocacy group Open Doors in its latest assessment.
The government views “the growth of the church in Iran as an attempt by Western countries to undermine Islam and the Islamic regime of Iran,” it added.
“House groups made up of converts from Muslim backgrounds are often raided, and both their leaders and members have been arrested, prosecuted, and given long prison sentences for “crimes against national security,” Open Doors said.
There are at least 800,000 Christians living among Iran’s Muslim-majority population of more than 84 million, according to Open Doors estimates. Other groups say that figure may be higher.