Three Christians are standing trial in Iran after a new amendment to the Iranian penal code was passed through the legislature, according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).
The Christian defendants of the Church of Iran denomination of Christianity were put on trial in Karaj in northern Iran on Monday after converting to Christianity, being charged with "sectarian" activities.
The defendants, Amin Khaki, Milad Goudarzi and Alireza Nourmohammadi, originally stem from Muslim backgrounds.
The trial took place without the presence of lawyers as the presiding judge, Mehdi Zeilani, claimed the lawyers had not been registered to the defendants.
CSW confirmed that this was inaccurate and the lawyers had filled out the necessary requirements to defend the charged Iranians ten days before the trial commenced. On the day of the trial, the defendants were informed they would be representing themselves.
The defendants were accused of “engaging in propaganda against the Islamic regime," and were released on bail, instructed to report to police weekly.
Additionally, they were advised to leave the country and not to pursue any mediation for the case. Seventeen other members of the church were also interrogated.
"The three men are reportedly being charged under a new amendment to the Iranian Penal Code known as Article 500-bis, which deals with 'sectarian activities,'" CSW explained in a statement. "The amendment was passed by the Iranian Parliament (Majlis) and signed by outgoing president Hassan Rouhani in February 2021."
"It states that 'any deviant education or propaganda that contradicts or interferes with the sacred Islamic shari’a, will be severely punished," it added.
Up until today, Christian converts living in Iran have traditionally been charged with "action against state security," which stems from French law, and Iranian judges have used this in the past to crack down on people who convert to Christianity.
"CSW’s sources report that the new amendment targets groups labeled by the authorities as “wrong cults” (فرقه ضاله in Farsi)," CSW said. "This term is often used by the regime to undermine and persecute groups and movements that have deviated or separated from Twelver Shi'ism, the official school of thought and judiciary in Iran.
"It would appear that the Iranian authorities have extended the use of this term to include Evangelical and reform movements, as well as conversion from Islam to Christianity."
The amendment allows a range of punishments, including imprisonment for two to five years, the loss of voting rights for up to 15 years and heavy fines.
“The new amendment severely impairs Iran’s ability to fulfill its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to promote, protect and uphold the freedoms of religion or belief, and of expression," said CSW’s founder and president Mervyn Thomas. "These rights are already under pressure, and this amendment is likely to make the situation even more difficult for religious minorities in the country.
"We call upon the Iranian authorities to repeal this and similar laws which hinder the full realization of fundamental human rights for the Iranian people, and to end the relentless campaign of harassment of Christians and other religious minorities through the judicial system.”