According to a Persian language report by Mizan Online News Agency, prisoners within Evin Prison were allowed to attend a Christmas ceremony that included representatives of various Christian denominations including Catholic and Assyrian Churches. The event, which was held inside Evin Prison’s Amphitheater, began with a reading of the Surat of Maryam (Prophet Mary) in the Quran and included prayers, speeches, live music and even gifts for inmates.
During the ceremony, the head of Evin Prison Mr. Charmahali explained that this program was set up to accommodate “foreign prisoners” and others who are jailed far away from their hometowns. Last July, an Iranian judiciary official claimed that Iran holds 136 foreign prisoners from 27 countries, mostly on drug related charges. According to Charmahali, this Christmas ceremony in Evin Prison is evidence of the Iranian government’s good record on rights of the inmates and consideration for their cultural and religious well-being. Charmahali ended his remarks by wishing everyone the opportunity to be free.
Among the officials present was Yonathan Betkolia, who is now on his fifth term as representative of the Assyrian Christian community in the Iranian parliament. He expressed his gratitude to the Iranian judiciary and prison system as well all individuals responsible for organizing the event. He alleged that human rights activists who state falsely that he is deprived of his freedom should have attended this event to witness how the prisoners’ needs are met. Another speaker, Vania, Priest of the Assyrian Catholic Church praised the level of calm and safety exhibited in the prison-hosted Christmas event and made comparisons to American and European churches’ anxiety about ISIS attacks.
Based on the photos and videos obtained, no women were in attendance at this event. Furthermore, according to Human Rights News Agency (HRANA), inmates who converted to Christianity while incarcerated were not allowed to attend the event. Conversion out of Islam is illegal in Iran and punishable by prison time and even the death penalty.
Despite the celebrations in Evin Prison, arrests of Christians in Iran is an ongoing phenomenon.
Despite the celebrations in Evin Prison, arrests of Christians in Iran is an ongoing phenomenon. On December 12 in the city of Karaj, four Iranian converts to Christianity were reportedly arrested. It was reported that the shops of two of the detainees was raided by the authorities, who confiscated a Bible and a lap top computer. In addition, six homes used by the Iranian converts as a church was raided by the Iranian authorities.
In June 2017, one Iranian and three Azeri converts to Christianity were sentenced to 10 years in prison for engaging in missionary work and “activities against Iran’s national security.” While traditional ethnic churches such as the Armenian, Catholic and Assyrian churches are tolerated by the Iranian regime, evangelical Christians and converts are banned in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran is listed as one of the worst violators of religious liberty in the 2017 report of the US Commission on Internal Religious Freedom.
As for Christmas experiences for some of the more recognized prisoners in Iran, is worth noting that duel British-Iranian national Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliff is still jailed in Kermanshah. Earlier hopes for Ratcliff’s Christmas day release have not been realized. According to Ratcliff’s husband, Nazanin and the other inmates spent Christmas eating roasted chicken: “They read a couple bits of the Bible; none were Christian but there were some previous Christian prisoners there. They read out the nativity and Nazanin chose 1 Corinthians 13. She was sad to be away from us.”
Ratcliff’s husband noted that since the British Foreign Secretary visited Iran, some accommodations have been arranged for her. He noted that he has been able to talk to his wife 5 to 6 times per week instead of once or twice per week and Nazanin has been given access to an exercise yard, a TV and books. Furthermore, she has obtained permission to have more frequent visitation by her three-year old daughter, Gabriella who is presently living with grandparents in Iran. Iran’s semi-official news agency ISNA said that Nazanin could be eligible for early release next month if she does not face new charges.
While the Christmas celebrations in Evin may suggest Iranian officials’ desire to demonstrate tolerance for religious minorities, given the ongoing arrests and restrictions on religious expression and conversions, the road to religious freedom remains complex and challenging. As for celebrations, the Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s family will have to wait until Nazanin is home free.