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Tehran, Iran, Oct 28, 2013 / 02:17 pm (CNA).- Four Iranian Christians were sentenced last week to 80 lashes each for drinking communion wine during a communion service at a house church.
The four men were charged in court with drinking alcohol and possessing a receiver and satellite antenna in Rasht, a city 200 miles northwest of Tehran, on Oct. 6. The verdict was delivered to the men Oct. 20, and they have been given ten days to appeal the sentence, the group Christian Solidarity Worldwide reports.
Iran is an Islamic Republic, and Islam forbids the consumption of alcohol. Non-Muslims account for less than one percent of Iran's population.
The charged men are members of the Church of Iran, a Protestant ecclesial community. Two of the men were arrested Dec. 31, 2012, during the government’s crackdown on house churches.
Mervyn Thomas, head of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, criticized the sentence.
“The sentences handed down to these members of the Church of Iran effectively criminalize 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 said Oct. 23.
He urged the Iranian authorities to ensure Iran’s laws do not violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a signatory. He said the government should guarantee “the full enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief by all its religious communities.”
The sentencing follows the Oct. 4 release of a report from Ahmed Shaheed, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Iran.
Shaheed said there are still allegations of rights violations, although the Iranian government has accepted recommendations to extend rights guaranteed under international law to members of all religious groups. These alleged violations include limitations on freedom of expression, assembly, and association.
Members of minority religious communities, including Christians, are “increasingly subjected to
various forms of legal discrimination, including in employment and education, and
often face arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment,” the report said.
More than 300 Christians have been arrested since 2010, with dozens of church leaders convicted of national security crimes for their church activities. At least 20 remain in custody. Evangelical Protestant groups, many of whose members are converts, are particularly affected, according to the report.
The Iranian government responded to a draft version of the report, contending that it was a “politicized report” based on “invalid” sources.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran has been and continues to be transparent and responsive to human rights issues,” the government said.
Saeed Abedini, a Protestant pastor, has been imprisoned by the Iranian authorities for over a year. He was charged with threatening national security for his work with non-religious orphanages in the country.
He had previously worked with house churches in Iran, and human rights groups contend that his Christian faith is the real reason for his eight-year sentence.