Joseph Shahbazian (59) is an ethnic Armenian house church leader who is serving a ten-year prison sentence in Iran for holding church services in his home. He has been in Tehran’s Evin Prison since August 2022. In February 2023 the Supreme Court granted Joseph a retrial and in May 2023 he had his ten-year sentence reduced to two years.
LATEST NEWS (SEPTEMBER 2023): Joseph was released from prison on 13 September after receiving a pardon.
Joseph was arrested on the evening of 30 June 2020 when ten intelligence agents from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) raided a house-church gathering of around thirty Christians in the home of a recent convert in western Tehran’s Yaftabad district.
All those present were taken down to the building’s car park, where a van and several cars were waiting. The agents read out a list of names on an arrest warrant and the six Christians whose names were on it (Joseph and five converts) were handcuffed, blindfolded and driven away to their homes in Tehran and nearby Karaj, which were searched for Bibles, other Christian literature and communications devices. Witnesses reported that some of the Christians and some of their non-Christian family members were beaten.
The raid was the start of a two-day series of coordinated raids on Christian homes and house churches in three cities (Tehran, Karaj and Malayer, 400 km southwest of Tehran) during which IRCG agents arrested or interrogated at least 35 Christians. Most were released in the days following the raids and all within a few weeks except for Joseph and a convert from Islam named Malihe Nazari.
It is believed that the raids were coordinated with the help of an informant who had infiltrated the Christians’ network within the previous few months, tipped off the authorities and reportedly accompanied the intelligence agents in their raid on the Tehran house church.
Unprecedented bail demand
Joseph was charged with “acting against national security by promoting Zionist Christianity” and after three weeks’ detention his bail was set at the exorbitant figure of three billion tomans (approximately €140,000) – an unprecedented amount that was twice the previous highest bail demand for a Christian prisoner of conscience.
Malihe Nazari also had bail set at three billion tomans. She is a leader in Tehran’s One-Hearted Women Church and was arrested the day after Joseph in a raid on her home in Tehran by IRCG agents who searched the premises and confiscated personal belongings including computers, phones and books.
Neither family could raise the amount of the bail demand, despite in Joseph’s case submitting title deeds to two apartments worth two billion tomans (his home and the apartment below, belonging to his mother) and they pleaded for a reduction.
On 22 August 2020 the court accepted the amount submitted for Joseph’s bail and he was released on a reduced bail of two billion tomans. Malihe was released the following month on bail of around one billion tomans.
Convicted and sentenced
On 16 October 2021 Joseph, Malihe and five Christian converts who had also been arrested during the coordinated raids (Mina Khajavi, Salar Eshraghi Moghadam, Farhad Khazaee, Somayeh Sadegh and Masoumeh Ghasemi) were summoned to give their final defence at the Evin prosecutor’s office. Their lawyer Iman Soleimani reported that the charges read out to them included “promoting ‘Zionist’ Christianity”, “weakening faith in Muslim clerics”, “membership in opposition groups” to “disrupt national security”, “weakening the foundation of the family” and “attracting Muslims to house-churches”. They denied all the charges.
On 29 May 2022 the seven Christians were tried at Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court of Tehran on charges of “acting against national security by promoting Zionist Christianity” through either leadership or membership of a house-church. At the hearing, which lasted more than four hours, Judge Iman Afshari pressurised the Christians to recant their faith as an incentive for a reduction in their sentences and reportedly attempted to persuade the other defendants in the case to blame Joseph for their conversions, promising lighter sentences if they complied. When they refused, he reportedly threatened to increase their sentences.
Judge Afshari, who has gained a reputation for severe sentencing of Christians, reportedly threatened, intimidated and ridiculed the defendants and their lawyers and used harsh words and sarcasm to humiliate the Christians and denigrate their beliefs. When their lawyer objected, the judge replied that he was “only joking”. He reportedly failed to act impartially, speaking in defence of the charges and failing to ask the prosecutor’s representative any questions about the legality of the case against the defendants and their activities, despite repeated objections from the Christians’ lawyer.
Joseph was convicted of “founding or leading an organisation that aims to disrupt national security” and on 7 June 2022 the court sentenced him to ten years in prison followed by two years in internal exile in a remote province in the southeast of Iran. He was also sentenced to a two-year ban on travelling abroad or membership of any social or political group and he will have to report to the offices of Iran’s intelligence service for two years after his release on an unspecified “seasonal basis”.
In his verdict, Judge Afshari stated, “The papers of this case file indicate that this person, who considers himself an Armenian and has travelled abroad several times and attended a gathering in Turkey, having established a group to attract Muslims, and under the cover of religious programmes for prayer, has propagated Evangelical Christianity, and with illegal activities and unfounded claims has abused people’s inner weaknesses and attracted some of them to the membership of his group.”
Iran’s regime describes house churches as “enemy groups” with “anti-security purposes” and Joseph was sentenced under Article 498 of the penal code, which provides for up to ten years’ imprisonment for those who “establish groups that aim to disrupt national security”. Article 499 provides for up to five years’ imprisonment for membership of such a group.
Malihe and Mina were each sentenced to six years in prison on the same charge of “founding or leading an organisation that aims to disrupt national security”. Malihe was pardoned and released from prison in April 2023 because her son was severely ill with leukaemia and Mina has not been summoned to serve her sentence because her ankle was badly broken when she was run over by a car. The other four converts were sentenced to between one and four years’ imprisonment for house-church membership, but they have been permitted to pay fines instead of going to prison.
On 17 August 2022 the Appeal Court of Tehran upheld the sentences imposed on Joseph and Malihe. Judges Abasali Hozavan and Khosrow Khalili Mehdiyarji announced their verdict without a hearing taking place, saying that the defence had failed to meet the necessary criteria for the appeal to be considered.
Lawyer Iman Soleimani told Article 18 that the judgment had been reached “with a complete disregard for the extensive and well-reasoned defence offered” and showed a “disregard of absolute legal and juridical principles, such as the principles of equal opportunity [to dispute accusations], legality of crimes and punishments, and right to a defence”.
Summoned to prison
On 29 August 2022 Joseph was summoned to Evin Prison to begin serving his sentence. He was given 24 hours to hand himself in to the prison authorities, which he did at around midday the following day. Malihe began serving her sentence in Evin Prison on the same day, 30 August.
On 25 February 2023 the Supreme Court granted a retrial of Joseph’s case, although his lawyer was not informed until 13 March, and on 24 May 2023, following a retrial, his ten-year sentence was reduced to two years.
Joseph is married, with a son.
30 June 2020 Joseph Shahbazian was arrested at a house church gathering in Tehran. Three weeks later, his bail was set at three billion tomans (approximately €140,000), an unprecedented amount for a Christian prisoner of conscience.
22 August 2020 A reduced bail of two billion tomans was accepted and Joseph was released.
16 October 2021 Joseph, Malihe Nazari and three other Christians were summoned to give their final defence at the Evin prosecutor’s office.
29 May 2022 Joseph’s case was heard at the Revolutionary Court of Tehran.
6 June 2022 He was convicted of “founding or leading an organisation that aims to disrupt national security“.
7 June 2022 The court sentenced Joseph to ten years in prison followed by two years in internal exile and a two-year ban on travelling abroad or membership of any social or political group.
17 August 2022 The Appeal Court of Tehran upheld Joseph’s sentence, without a hearing taking place.
29 August 2022 Joseph was summoned to Evin Prison to begin serving his sentence. He handed himself in to the prison authorities the following day.
25 February 2023 The Supreme Court granted a retrial of Joseph’s case.
24 May 2023 Joseph’s sentence was reduced to two years following a retrial.
13 September 2023 Joseph was released from prison after receiving a pardon.
Read more about the persecution of Christians in Iran in the Church in Chains Iran Country Profile.
(Article 18, Middle East Concern, Mohabat News, Morning Star News, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom)
Photo: Article 18