An Iranian Christian convert sent into internal exile by Iran’s government after it jailed him for six years for his peaceful evangelism has criticized his banishment as a form of harassment.
Iranian authorities had ordered 33-year-old Ebrahim Firoozi into exile in the southeastern town of Rask in Sistan and Baluchistan province last November, leaving him about 1,600 kilometers from his home in the Tehran suburb of Robat Karim. He had been released from Rajaei-Shahr prison near Tehran in October at the conclusion of a six-year prison term for Christian evangelical activities designated as national security offenses in the Islamist-ruled nation.
Before his detention and trial in 2013, Firoozi had served a half-year in prison for proselytizing in 2011.
Firoozi’s 2013 sentence included two years of internal exile at the conclusion of his prison term. An Iranian court extended his period of banishment by 11 months in March as punishment for making a brief departure from Rask in December 2019 to deal with family affairs in Hamedan, where he was born a Muslim in 1987.
The court accused Firoozi of violating the terms of his internal exile by taking an unauthorized leave of absence that lasted several days. He later told overseas Christian organizations that he had sought permission for the trip and proceeded after receiving no response from authorities.
Firoozi made the trip to Hamedan to resolve issues related to the death of his mother in December 2018 while he was in prison, he told the groups.
In a Thursday phone interview with VOA Persian, Firoozi criticized Iran’s government for sending activists such as himself into internal exile, saying it does so in order to legally harass citizens who reject its agenda once they have left prison.
The former prisoner of conscience described the conditions of his internal exile in Rask, a town of about 1,000, as tough. “Rask has no hospital and only one pharmacy that lacks essential drugs. If you get sick, there is no place to go,” he said.
Firoozi said he is barred from leaving Rask’s boundaries and must report to a local police station every 24 hours. He said five other former prisoners also have been exiled to the town.
In his March interview with California-based Iranian Christian group Hovsepian Ministries, Firoozi said he decided to convert to Christianity after discovering online videos about the faith and studying a bible when he was living in Tehran in his early 20s. He said he knew he could get into trouble with Iran’s Islamist authorities for sharing his knowledge and love of the faith with other Iranians, but was determined to continue doing so because he believed he was doing nothing wrong.
Firoozi said that during his years of detention, Iranian judges offered him freedom or reduced prison time in return for renouncing Christianity, but he refused to contemplate such a step.
Speaking to London-based Iranian Christian rights group Article 18 in April, Firoozi said he had been treated well and even offered housing by Rask’s predominantly Sunni Muslim community.
“As soon as it became known that I was only there because of my beliefs, these dear people accepted me as a guest on the first night,” he said.
Iran prohibits its Muslim citizens from converting to another religion. Muslims make up 99.4% of Iran’s 84 million people, according to U.S. government estimates.
Iran’s refusal to recognize the Christianity of converts means it only recognizes two main categories of Christians. One category is Armenian and Assyrian Christians whose presence in Iran predates Islam, and the other is citizens who can prove they or their families were Christian before Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Iran’s post-1979 constitution recognizes Christians as one of only three authorized religious minorities, along with Jews and Zoroastrians. It requires members of these minorities to register as such but bars converts from doing so. As a result, Iranian converts long have been denied the same rights as recognized members of Christian communities.
The U.S. State Department’s latest annual report on religious freedom in Iran, published earlier this month, cited human rights activists as saying Tehran continued to target Christian converts last year with arbitrary arrests, physical abuse and other forms of harsh treatment.