Iran ‘deliberately targeting Christians because of their faith in crackdown’

Iran has been accused of rounding up Christians and jailing them because of their faith in a shocking religious clampdown.

Activists are calling on Iranian leaders to free four people jailed for a combined 45 years, amid warnings that citizens are being targeted on religious grounds.

It comes after worldwide criticism over the country’s imprisonment of British charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

The mum-of-one was briefly released last week before being forced to return to jail on Sunday .

Amnesty International has called on Iran to immediately release four Iranian Christians, including pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz and his wife Shamiram Issavi.

The couple, along with converts Amin Afshar-Naderi and Hadi Asgari, have been convicted for attending "illegal church activities" which authorities claim threaten national security.

A statement from Amnesty International said: "They have been targeted solely for peacefully practicing their Christian faith."

Mr Bet-Tamraz was arrested in December 2014 when security forces raided his home in Tehran during a Christmas celebration.

Mr Afshar-Naderi was taken into custody during the same raid, and they were taken to the notorious Evin prison in Tehran – the same jail where Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been held for more than two years.

Both reportedly spent months in solitary confinement.

They and Mr Asgari were each sentenced to 10 years behind bars last year, with Mr Afshar-Naderi also given an additional five years for ‘insulting Islamic sanctities’ after he posted a satirical Facebook message about the price of chicken, which adopted a Quranic writing style.

In January Ms Issavi was sentenced to five years for membership of a group ‘with the purpose of disrupting national security’ and another five years for ‘gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security’.

The human rights organisation said that although Christianity is recognised in Iran’s constitution, followers are given only limited protection, while converts are given no protection at all.

In a statement it said: "Christians in Iran have been a target of harassment, arbitrary arrest and detention, unfair trials, and imprisonment on national security-related charges solely because of their faith.

"In the past year alone, dozens of Christians, mostly Christian converts, have been targeted."

Iran’s targeting of alleged opponents has been under international scrutiny, and yesterday it emerged that British mum Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has collapsed in prison after suffering two panic attacks.

Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 40, was arrested in April 2016 after being accused of espionage and spying by Tehran’s Islamist regime.

She was sentenced to five years in jail – during which time husband Richard, from London, has not been allowed into Iran to visit her.

She denies the allegation and said she was on holiday in Iran to allow her daughter to spend time with relatives there.

Last week, the charity worker was granted a temporary release on furlough after 873 days in jail.

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