Thursday, July 04, 2024

Arrested for Reading the Bible: Armenian Christian Sentenced to 10 Years in Iranian Prison

An Armenian citizen will serve 10 years in an Iranian prison after being prosecuted for alleged Christian evangelism.

An Iranian judge sentenced Hakop Gochumyan to prison in February 2024 for committing “illegal Christian activities.” 

The judge invoked Article 160 of Iran’s Islamic Penal Code, which allows for decisions based on “personal intuition.” 

Gochumyan appealed in early June as the conviction lacked evidence, but he was unsuccessful.

Gochumyan and his wife, Elisa Shahvardian, who is Iranian-Armenian, were arrested in August 2023 while they and their two children were staying at their friends’ house near Tehran. 

Agents from the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence searched the house and found several copies of the New Testament and Christian literature among their belongings.

Gochumyan and Shahvardian reportedly endured solitary confinement and psychological torture at Evin Prison in Tehran, according to Christian international aid agency Barnabas Aid

Shahvardian was released in October 2023, but Gochumyan remained imprisoned.

“Iran represses Christians; they are disproportionately arrested and detained and put under surveillance,” Nina Shea told the Register, a senior fellow and director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF)’s 2024 “Annual Report” describes religious freedom in Iran as “extremely poor.” 

The U.S. government has redesignated Iran as a “country of particular concern” since 1999.

While the theocratic, authoritarian nation’s law permits Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians to practice their religion, they may not commit “any deviant educational or proselytizing activity that contradicts or interferes with the sacred law of Islam.”

Christians make up less than 1% of the nation’s total population, along with Jews, Yarsanis, Zoroastrians, Sabean-Mandaeans and Baha’is, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2023 “Report on International Religious Freedom for Iran.”

Iran arrested 166 Christians in 2023, a third of whom were arrested for owning multiple copies of the Holy Bible, according to the 2024 annual report from Article18, a London-based nonprofit organization that advocates for persecuted Iranian Christians.

“There’s a great shift away from Islam by the populace; they’re becoming atheists, but there’s also the surge in evangelical Christianity, and this is a direct response to the oppressiveness of coerced religion in Iran, an arbitrary cruel regime that rules in the name of Shia Islam,” Shea said.

Despite the risk of persecution, evangelical Christianity is growing in Iran, with Open Doors having estimated nearly 800,000 Christian converts from Islam living in Iran in 2021.

According to Father Benedict Kiely, founder of Nasarean, a charity that advocates for persecuted Christians, the number of conversions to Christianity in Iran is “startling and encouraging,” and “many reports are emerging of Jesus or the Blessed Virgin Mary appearing in people’s dreams, causing them to convert.”

Shea said the religious shift is a “hopeful sign” that may signal a discrediting of the Iranian political system, as Islamic religious sites in many cities are increasingly empty.

While Christian converts from Islam make up most of the Christian population, they often worship in secret, evangelical house-churches for fear of being discovered for committing apostasy, according to Article18’s report.

Shea said many Christians receive training outside of Iran to evangelize, often through the illegal distribution of the New Testament.

Armenian-Iranian house-church pastor Joseph Shahzbanian was originally sentenced to 10 years in Evin in 2022 for “acting against national security by promoting Zionist Christianity.” 

He and five other Christians were arrested at a gathering and searched for Bibles and Christian literature. 

Iran shortened Shahzbanian’s sentence to two years after a retrial, and ultimately pardoned and released him in September 2023.

“As with all persecution, prayer is the priority, but also aid and advocacy,” Father Kiely said. “Christians are being persecuted more heavily than any other religious group in the world — thus, must be a higher priority for the Church.”

Article18 reports that, as of 2023, 21 Christians remain imprisoned in Iran.