By Stefan J. Bos, Special Correspondent Worthy News
(Worthy News) - The U.S. State Department has condemned Iran’s reported flogging of a former Muslim-turned-Christian for drinking Communion wine.
Iranian Christian convert Mohammad Reza (Youhan) Omidi was lashed 80 times on October 14, several Christian sources confirmed.
The punishment came a month after he began serving two years of internal exile in the city of Borazjan– another punishment related to his house-church membership.
Omidi was summoned by authorities in his home city of Rasht, over 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) north of Borazjan. “They ordered him to travel back home at his own expense to receive his lashes,” Christians following the case said.
State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus stressed that the United States was “deeply disturbed” by the reported flogging. Ortegas noted that before the flogging and internal exile, Omidi already spent two years in prison for belonging to a house-church.
Christians note that this was not the first time Omidi was forced to undergo flogging. He was also given 80 lashes in 2013, alongside one other house-church member, for the same reason: they had used wine with Communion.
Under Iranian law, it is illegal for Muslims to drink alcohol, but exceptions are made for recognized faith groups, including Christians.
However, Iran does not recognize converts as Christians, according to believers familiar with the situation.
Iran’s government criminalizes conversion to Christianity and severely restricts the faith practice of Armenian and Assyrian Christians
Mansour Borji, director of religious rights group Article18, called Omidi’s flogging “inhumane and humiliating.” “Now, as a Christian and just for the performing of a religious ritual that all Christians do around the world, he has suffered 80 lashes,” he said.
The Iranian Christian had also been imprisoned and then sent into exile “solely for his Christian belief,” the director noted.
Omidi was sentenced to 80 lashes in September 2016, alongside two fellow house-church members, Mohammad Ali (Yasser) Mossayebzadeh and Zaman (Saheb) Fadaee.
Also, an Iranian court sentenced them to 10-year prison terms. Their pastor, Yousef Nadarkhani, received a similar sentence from a revolutionary court in Tehran, the capital.
Ormidi’s prison term was later reduced to two years, but Nadarkhani and Fadaee remain in prison. Mossayebzadeh was recently given temporary leave from prison due to fears of the spread of the coronavirus.
In August, Mossayebzadeh was one of a dozen inmates in Ward 8 of Tehran’s notorious Evin prison to test positive for COVID-19, well-informed Christians said.
Borji said devoted Christians also suffer outside the prison walls in Islamic-ruled Iran.
He cited the case of Sam Khosravi and Maryam Falahi, whose two-year-old adopted daughter Lydia is reportedly due to be removed from their care because they are Christians.
Borji urged the international community to “go beyond slogans and not just express concern about the situation of Christian citizens’ rights, but show in practice that this matters to them.”
“If they are to make concessions to Iran in economic and trade exchanges, they should make this conditional on the observance of human rights standards in Iran,” he argued.
Despite the reported persecuted, Christianity is spreading in Iran. There may be at least 800,000 devoted Christians in Iran, according to updated estimates by rights investigators.
That seems still a tiny percentage of a population of roughly more than 84 million, but church leaders say congregations are growing.