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Two Christians Pardoned, Released Unexpectedly from Iran's Evin Prison

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Human rights advocates were surprised after two Christians who were being held in Iran's notorious Evin Prison for their church leadership roles were suddenly released last month.

The man and woman, Pastor Naser Navard Goltapeh and Fariba Dalir were freed on Oct. 17 and 18 respectively, according to Morning Star News. The two were released following a riot and a fire at the prison on Oct. 15. 

Goltapeh had spent two months in solitary confinement before receiving a pardon from Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei. 

Dalir had also spent 38 days in solitary and also received a pardon, but the details about it were unclear. She was arrested in July 2021 for starting a house church. 

Morning Star News reports the pardons for both Christians were unexpected because both had previously requested clemency and had been denied. 

"We know that various bodies, the U.K. government, and the U.N., were advocating for (Pastor Goltapeh's) release, and we know that Evin Prison is hosting protestors and running out of space, but we don't know what made Khamanei do this out of the blue," an expert on Iran for advocacy group Middle East Concern (MEC) told the outlet. 

Since both Goltapeh and Dalir had served over one-third of their sentences, they were eligible for early release under Iranian law. 

Arrested for Missionary Activities

Goltapeh was arrested along with three other Christians in June 2016 in Karaj, near Tehran.  The four men were then charged with "missionary activities" and "actions against national security" in October 2016 and released on bail, Morning Star News reports. In November, the three other men were allowed to leave the Islamic republic, but Goltapeh, a convert to Christianity from Islam,  had to stay in the country and go on trial. 

In May of 2017, he was convicted of "acting against national security through forming and establishing illegal house churches" and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Goltapeh had served 5 years of his sentence until his release last month. 

Sentenced to 5 Years for Establishing an Evangelical Christian Church

Dalir, also a convert from Islam, was sentenced in November 2021 to five years in prison for "acting against national security by establishing and leading an evangelical Christian church." 

According to rights group Article 18, Dalir was denied parole for the fifth time in July. She also had been denied a retrial of her case several times. Her sentence was later reduced to two years after the presiding judge realized he had made an administrative mistake in her case, according to Morning Star

Dalir and five other Christians were arrested by members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRG) in July 2021. The IRG held her in solitary confinement for 38 days before transferring her to a woman's prison. She was released on bail in November 2021. 

Dalir began serving her sentence in April. She had made an application for conditional release in August, but it was denied. 

Goltapeh and Dalir's freedom came following a riot and a fire at the prison on Oct. 15, according to Morning Star. At least eight prisoners died in the incident. 

Amnesty International reported that some of the injured prisoners were shot and that the government likely underreported the total casualties. The human rights group has also called for international monitors to investigate the use of unlawful force at the prison and to protect prisoners from further unlawful killings, torture, and other mistreatment.

Evin Prison has served as the primary location for detaining Iran's political prisoners since 1972. 

USCIRF to State Department: List Iran as 'Country of Particular Concern' for Religious Freedom Violations 

As CBN News reported in August, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is urging the U.S. State Department to list Iran as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for its ongoing violations of religious freedom.

In its 2022 annual report titled Religious Propaganda in Iran, USCIRF highlights efforts by Iran's government to spread false information and encourage a negative opinion about Christianity and other faiths.

Targeting religious minorities over the alleged betrayal of Iran is just one element of the Islamic Republic's propaganda. 

According to the report, disinformation is spread by the Iranian government by using media outlets, which strive to ensure that all content supports the government's interpretation of Ja'afri Shi'a Islam. 

Among those targeted are Christian converts, who are described as belonging to an "Evangelical Zionist cult."

USCIRF Commissioner Sharon Kleinbaum told CBN News that propaganda against Christian converts escalates the persecution.

"These accusations invoke geo-political conflicts and painful historical events for Iran's public, which may turn many people against Iran's Christian community and make Iranian Christians less safe," Kleinbaum explained.

The report also reveals that the Iranian government uses fake claims of national security as a reason to prosecute Christians and other religious minorities.

Open Doors USA, a watchdog group that monitors religious freedom abuses in over 60 countries, lists Iran as the ninth-worst country in the world for Christian persecution in its 2022 World Watch List

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