Pastor Irani with his wife and children.
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)-- A pastor of Iran's largest evangelical church movement will return to prison after undergoing surgery for injuries linked to mistreatment behind bars, Iranian Christians said Monday, February 24.
Pastor Behnam Irani of the 300-member Church of Iran congregation in Karaj city, 20 kilometres (12 miles) west of capital Tehran, was reportedly suffering from severe bleeding due to stomach ulcers and colon complications, which even caused him to lose consciousness.
Advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) confirmed that the operation in Karaj's Shahid Madani Hospital "was successful". CSW said Pastor Irani would be returned to Ghezal Hesar Prison in Karaj on Tuesday, February 25.
Irani, who is in his 40s, began a one-year prison term in 2011 but was later told he would also have to serve a five-year, previously suspended, sentence for "crimes against national security".
Local Christians have expressed concern that the married father of two children may also face execution, after a court advised such a sentence for alleged "apostasy", or abandoning Islam.
Christians with close knowledge about the case said the pastor was initially held in a small cell, where guards repeatedly woke him from sleep as a form of psychological torture.
He was later moved to a cramped room where inmates could not lie down to sleep, before being transferred to what Christians called "a crowded, filthy cell," which he reportedly shares with 40 convicted criminals, many of whom violent.
Christians said he has been subjected to physical and psychological pressure, and also suffered regular beatings from cell mates and prison authorities, as well as death threats.
Church members linked the sentence and harsh treatment to Irani's Christian activities as an effective evangelical pastor. In a recent interview with BosNewsLife, the pastor said he was told by a court that he would have to remain behind bars because he "did not change".
Yet, Irani made clear he remained faithful to Christ, despite court pressure to
return to Islam. "I've the joy of the Holy Spirit. I'm very thankful for Christian activists who are fighting alongside with us," he said.
CSW Chief Exutive Mervyn Thomas told BosNewsLife that while his group is pleased that Pastor Irani is recovering well in hospital, "it is unacceptable that his condition was allowed to deteriorate to such an extent before he was given appropriate treatment."
He said CSW has urged his immediate release from prison. "Although he was convicted on political charges, in reality he is in prison on account of his faith and in contravention of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is party.”
Several other Christians are jailed in the strict Islamic nation on what rights activists and local believers have described as "trumped up charges."
Among those detained is also Saeed Abedini a U.S. citizen of Iranian birth. In January, 2013, Abedini was sentenced to eight years imprisonment on charges of attempting to undermine the Iranian government and endangering national security by establishing home churches.
Abedini had converted to Christianity from Islam and became a pastor in Idaho. He regularly made trips to Iran and was reportedly on a bus crossing from Turkey into Iran in the summer of 2012 when immigration officials took away his passport, before he was jailed.
Despite the pressure on devoted Christians, mission groups have suggested there may be at least 100,000 evangelical believers in Iran, many of them former Muslims.