Iranian court sentences a Christian convert to 10 years in prison; observers skeptical about changes under new president


TEHRAN, Iran — An Iranian judge sentenced Christian convert Mostafa Bordbar to 10 years in prison on July 31 for a severe charge: "gathering with intent to commit crimes against Iranian national security."

The gathering Bordbar attended: a church Christmas party last year.

Police arrested some 50 Iranian Christians at the Christmas event at a home in northern Tehran on Dec. 27, 2012. Authorities interrogated and released most of the group but detained Bordbar—a convert who already had been convicted of apostasy in a previous court case.

Bordbar's prison sentence is the latest development in a fresh wave of arrests and convictions of Christians in Iran since last year, including the ongoing detention of American pastor Saeed Abedini.

Bordbar's conviction came three days before Iran's new president took office on Aug. 4. Some analysts have called President Hasan Rouhani "a moderate" who might foster better international relations after eight years of bellicose rule by former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In his first news conference as president on Wednesday, Rouhani said he was ready to hold talks with any nation of "good will."

But despite discussions of the new president's potential moderation, Bordbar's sentence underscores the vivid reality for Christians and other minority groups in Iran: Christians still find the nation a severe place to live, and Iran's good will doesn't extend to a long-persecuted bloc of its own people.

Bordbar's oppression began several years ago when authorities arrested him in his hometown of Rasht for converting to Christianity and attending a house church. (Conversions from Islam to Christianity are illegal in Iran, and private churches are forbidden.)

A court found Bordbar guilty of apostasy but released him after he posted a steep bail. The apostasy charge remained on his record, and Bordbar found he couldn't set up a business in the following years.

By last year, Bordbar was still active in house churches and attended a Christmas gathering in Tehran with 50 other converts to Christianity on Dec. 27. Authorities detained and interrogated the group, demanding information on personal contacts and passwords for their email and Facebook accounts.

Security forces released most of the group but detained Bordbar and Vruir Avanessian, an Armenian pastor. Authorities released the pastor on bail in March, but Bordbar stood trial in June.

BosNewsLife—an agency reporting on persecuted Christians—reported the court accused Bordbar of undermining the country's Islamic leadership by establishing "evangelical ministries and organizations and holding underground worship meetings." The court cited Bordbar's baptism in the home of a pastor and his involvement with house churches, claiming the believer had distributed thousands of pieces of Christian literature.

By July 31, the court delivered the judge's verdict to Bordbar's attorney: 10 years in prison. The attorney said she would appeal.

The ruling comes a month after a court sentenced at least eight Iranian Christians to shorter sentences for similar Christian activity. The court sentenced at least one of the Christians to six years in prison.

Meanwhile, American pastor Saeed Abedini approaches the one-year anniversary of his imprisonment in Iran. The pastor had returned to Iran last summer to visit family and help at a local orphanage when authorities detained him, sentencing him to eight years in prison for allegedly endangering national security.

The American Center for Law and Justice reported Abedini's medical condition had improved after months of deprivation and beatings, but said the pastor still needed medical attention for severe abdomen pain. Tens of thousands of supporters worldwide have sent letters to the notorious Evin Prison addressed to Abedini.

Open Doors—a Christian persecution watchdog group—said Iranian Christians were skeptical about potential improvements under a new president. One Christian told the agency little would change while the country's top Islamic cleric, Ayatollah Khamenei, remained in control.

"In your Western media, the candidates are divided into conservatives and reformers, as if there is a choice," the Christian said. "But let me tell you this: There is no choice. All of the candidates are from Ayatollah Khamenei's team."