By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - More than 300 Christians have been arrested since mid-2010 in Iran where churches operate in a climate of fear and Muslims who convert to Christianity face persecution, United Nations human rights investigators said on Thursday.
They welcomed the release earlier this month of Yousof Nadarkhani, a Christian pastor who spent three years in prison before his death sentence for apostasy and evangelism was commuted, but voiced deep concerns for those still detained.
In a joint statement, the independent investigators called on authorities in the Islamic Republic to "ease the current climate of fear in which many churches operate, especially Protestant evangelical houses of worship".
Ahmed Shaheed, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, estimated that based on his own interviews and reports from activist groups, "over 300 Christians have been arbitrarily arrested and detained throughout the country since June 2010".
They included at least 41 people detained from one month to more than a year, sometimes without official charges, said Shaheed, a former foreign minister of the Maldives, who has not been allowed into Iran despite repeated requests.
"Scores of other Christians appear to remain in detention for freely practicing their religion," he said, noting the Iranian constitution and a landmark international treaty ratified by Iran protect the right to practice that faith.
"Churches continue to report undue pressure to report membership, in what appears to be an effort to pressure and sometimes even detain converts," he said.
Nadarkhani, born to Muslim parents, converted to Christianity at age 19 and joined a Protestant church in the northern city of Rasht.
He was arrested in October 2009 on charges of apostasy and found guilty. He was sentenced to death on charges of apostasy and evangelism in September 2010 following a trial in which Shaheed said guarantees of due process were not upheld.
This month, judicial authorities reduced his charge to "evangelizing Muslims" and his sentence to three years, which he had already served, Shaheed said.
In the U.N. expert's view, the charges did not qualify as offences under Iran's penal code.
"Questions remain as to why he spent three years in prison apparently for practicing his religion, a right guaranteed in Iran's own constitution and in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights," Shaheed said.
On Monday, judiciary spokesman Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, quoted by the Iranian Students' News Agency (ISNA), said of Nadarkhani: "Definitely his release was not the result of pressure by foreign media ... At the moment he is free and I don't have further information."
Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast, quoted by the semi-official Fars news agency, said on Tuesday: "A person's arrest ... is a judiciary matter. If this person has been released, it means that judicial investigations have allowed him to be released."
Heiner Bielefeldt, U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of religion, said Christians' right to freedom of religion was protected under Iranian law and should be granted in practice.
"The right to conversion in this context is an inseparable part of freedom of religion or belief," he said.
He called for the protection of other religious minorities such as the Baha'is, Yarsanis, Dervishes and other religions or faiths not recognized by Iran's constitution.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Zahra Hosseinian in Zurich; Editing by Sophie Hares)