A court in Iran has sentenced four Christian men to 80 lashes each for drinking wine during a communion ceremony, a Christian advocacy group and international news outlets reported.
The sentencing coincides with a government crackdown on so-called "house churches" -- unofficial spots in which Christians gather in Iran to practice their faith undetected. The arrests and harsh sentences suggest that despite the moderate image of President Hassan Rouhani and the outreach to Iran by the Obama administration, religious persecution of Christians in the Islamic Republic continues.
The four men -- Behzad Taalipasand, Mehdi Reza Omidi (Youhan), Mehdi Dadkhah (Danial) and Amir Hatemi (Youhanna) -- were convicted of drinking alcohol and possessing a receiver and a satellite antenna, according to a statement issued by Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
They were first arrested during a worship service last year around Christmastime, the U.K. Independent reported.
The verdict was handed down Oct. 20 in the city of Rasht, and the men have 10 days to appeal. The names in parenthesis are the biblical names each man has adopted, according to the Jerusalem Post.
The Post reported that just this month, the United Nations issued a report detailing the persecution of Christians in Iran.
U.N. Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran Dr. Ahmed Shaheed said in the report, "At least 20 Christians were in custody in July 2013. In addition, violations of the rights of Christians, particularly those belonging to evangelical Protestant groups, many of whom are converts, who proselytize to and serve Iranian Christians of Muslim background, continue to be reported."
He said further that "authorities continue to compel licensed Protestant churches to restrict Persian speaking and Muslim-born Iranians from participating in services, and raids and forced closures of house churches are ongoing ... More than 300 Christians have been arrested since 2010, and dozens of church leaders and active community members have reportedly been convicted of national security crimes in connection with church activities, such as organizing prayer groups, proselytizing and attending Christian seminars abroad."
Iran responded to the U.N. report with a statement broadcast on Press TV, saying Shaheed "has not paid sufficient notice to Iran's legal system and Islamic culture and considers whatever he sees in the West as an international standard for the entire world."
According to National Catholic Register, the men who were sentenced to the lashes are members of the Church of Iran, a Protestant ecclesial community.
Mervyn Thomas, chief executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide said in a statement: "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."
Protestant Pastor Saeed Abedini, a U.S. citizen, has been in Iran's notorious Evin Prison for more than a year on charges of threatening national security by evangelizing in the Islamic country. His wife said in September that the pastor has been told he would be freed if he denies his Christian faith.
As TheBlaze reported last year, two Iranians were sentenced to death for the repeat offense of drinking alcohol.
Iranian law is based on Shariah Islamic law, which prohibits the consumption of alcohol.
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