Four Iranian Christians have been sentenced to 80 lashes for drinking ceremonial wine during a communion service and possessing a satellite radio antenna.
The harsh punishment comes amid a government crackdown on Iran’s so-called “house churches” – where worshippers gather in unofficial buildings to conduct Christian ceremonies.
The four men, Behzad Taalipasand, Mehdi Reza Omidi, Mehdi Dadkakh and Amir Hatemi, were originally arrested in the middle of a service just before Christmas last year. They were finally sentenced for the crimes on October 6 and given ten days to launch an appeal.
Reacting to the punishments, Chief Executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide Mervyn Thomas said: “The sentences handed down to these members of the Church of Iran effectively criminalise the Christian sacrament of sharing in the Lord’s Supper and constitute an unacceptable infringement on the right to practice faith freely and peaceably.”
He added: “We urge the Iranian authorities to ensure that the nation’s legal practices and procedures do not contradict its international obligation under the International Convent on Civil and Political Rights to guarantee the full enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief by all of its religious communities.”
According to Benjamin Weinthal writing for FoxNews.com, 370,000 Christians live in Iran and, despite assurances from President Hasan Rouhani that the harsh treatment would be scaled back, a UN special report into Iranian human rights criticised the country for routinely punishing non-Muslims for violating Islamic theocratic laws.
Ahmed Shaheed, the man behind the UN report, wrote: “At least 20 Christians were in custody in July 2013. In addition, violations of the rights of Christians, particularly those belonging to evangelical Protestant groups, many of whom are converts, who proselytize to and serve Iranian Christians of Muslim background, continue to be reported”.
He added: “Authorities continue to compel licensed Protestant churches to restrict Persian-speaking and Muslim-born Iranians from participating in services, and raids and forced closures of house churches are ongoing.
Dr Shaheed’s report went on to say: “More than 300 Christians have been arrested since 2010, and dozens of church leaders and active community members have reportedly been convicted of national security crimes in connection with church activities, such as organizing prayer groups, proselytizing and attending Christian seminars abroad.”
The Iranian government responded to the report with strong criticisms of the research, issuing a statement through the state-controlled Press TV news channel claiming Dr Shaheed “has not paid sufficient notice to Iran's legal system and Islamic culture and considers whatever he sees in the West as an international standard for the entire world”.