An Iranian appeals court acquitted nine Christian converts on Feb. 28. According to human rights watchdog Article18, the men had been imprisoned for more than two years for “acting against national security” and “promoting Zionist Christianity.”
In its ruling, the Tehran Court of Appeal cited “insufficient evidence.”
Judges Seyed Ali Asghar Kamali and Akbar Johari explained that the men had only “worshipped in the house church in accordance with the teachings of Christianity” and that Christians are taught to live in “obedience, submission and support of the authorities.” Therefore, they were not a threat to national security.
The judges also noted the legal principle of “interpreting any doubt in favor of the accused,” as well as an Islamic saying that teaches that “it is better to make mistakes in pardoning and forgiveness than in punishment.”
Open Doors USA called it a “landmark decision.”
“The outcome and specificity of the judge’s ruling brings hope for the future to not only the nine freed Christians but also all other Christians across Iran who left Islam and are worshipping (or desire to worship) in house churches,” Open Doors wrote in a press release.
Article18’s advocacy director Mansour Borji agreed.
“This ruling is unlike any other of its type that I have seen,” he said. “… The judges have gone to considerable length to explain their verdict, listing … different reasons based on the constitution, judicial principles, legal provisions and Islamic tradition.”
Nadine Maenza, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, also celebrated the ruling.
“We are pleased by the Tehran Court of Appeals’ acquittal of nine Christians,” she posted to Twitter. “Iran’s courts correctly determined that peacefully practicing Christianity does not threaten Iran’s national security.”
The accused included Abdolreza (Matthias) Ali-Haghnejad, Shahrooz Eslamdoust, Behnam Akhlaghi, Babak Hosseinzadeh, Mehdi Khatibi, Khalil Dehghanpour, Hossein Kadivar, Kamal Naamanian and Mohammad Vafadar.
The men were arrested during raids on their homes and house churches in January and February 2019 and sentenced in October of that year.
Last November, the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Court received a letter and a recorded video from two of the nine Christians—and a third Christian serving a separate six-year sentence for leading a house church—asking for clarification of where they should worship once they were released.
“The churches in our city have been closed down, the doors are shut, so we can’t worship in a church building,” said one of the Christians, Babak Hosseinzadeh, in his video message.
“The churches that remain open are accessible for only certain people—those born into Christian families—and not to us [converts]. Because of this, and the closure of the other churches, we have no church building in which to worship. So I want you to answer my question: ‘Where am I to worship after [I’ve served my sentence]?’”
The following week, the Supreme Court ordered a review of the men’s convictions, which led to this most recent ruling.
Above: Azadi Tower, also know as the Freedom Tower, in Tehran, Iran.