Two Christian women were among a number of prisoners of conscience released in Iran, ahead of new President Hassan Rouhani’s first address to the UN General Assembly in New York next week.
Since his election in June, Rouhani has projected a tone that is less strident than that of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. However, following a couple of months in which at least a further 20 Christians have been arrested on charges of “acting against national security”, Rouhani still has some way to go to win over sceptics.
Mitra Rahmati and Maryam Jalili were released from Tehran’s notorious Evin prison on Sept. 17. Mohabat News reports that the pair would likely have been released in one month’s time, after almost completing their two-and-a-half-year stints for evangelism among Muslims, and their membership in a Christian group. Several other prisoners of conscience also were released.
Many other Christians remain imprisoned. World Watch Monitor has reported in recent months of the imprisonment of eight Christians in Shiraz, while one young convert, Mostafa Bordbar, 27, was jailed for 10 years last month.
While U.N. delegates will watch Rouhani and his softer rhetoric for clues about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, others will be watching how he behaves toward his own people.
“In deciding how to decipher his plans on nuclear matters, the world would do well to watch how Rouhani deals with his own people,” said Dwight Bashir, deputy director of policy and research at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, in a column published at Al-Monitor, a website devote to Middle East commentary. “[A]t home, when it comes to Iran’s harsh treatment of its own people, Rouhani has yet to clarify how he plans to deliver on another campaign promise to make the government more respectful of its people's rights.”
“Since Rouhani’s election in June,” Bashir said, “there has been a renewed crackdown on Protestant Christians resulting in numerous arrests.”
Meanwhile, Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-born U.S. citizen and pastor serving eight years in prison for his missionary work, has written to Rouhani asking for justice and freedom.
“His only crime is his Christian faith, he presents no threat to Iranian national security, and he only wants to return home to his family in Idaho,” wrote Jordan Sekulow, Executive Director for the American Center for Law and Justice, which is providing legal representation to Abedini’s family in the United States.
The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, took to Twitter on Sept. 18 to hail the release of prisoners from Iran’s jails.
“But it’s far from enough,” she wrote. “Those missing or unjustly detained, including Amir Hekmati, Saeed Abedini, and Bob Levinson, must be returned home.”
Hekmati is awaiting retrial in Iran on espionage charges. Levinson was kidnapped in Iran in 2007 and is believed to remain in government custody.
Iran is No. 8 on the 2013 World Watch List, an annual ranking of the 50 countries where life as a Christian is most difficult. In May, World Watch Monitor reported that systematic persecution and prosecution of Christians abounds in the nation.