An Iranian pastor has been ordered by the country’s officials to either recant his faith in Jesus Christ or to expect to be executed. The 33-year-old Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani has been charged with apostasy for turning from Islam and converting to Christianity.
Nadarkhani’s case has been widely watched around the world and advocates have been calling for his release.
On Wednesday the U.S. Department of State issued a statement on the “Persecution of Religious Minorities in Iran.” The statement refers specifically to Pastor Nadarkhani 's case, highlighting that he is “just one of thousands who face persecution for their religious beliefs in Iran.”
The state department statement noted that if Iran executes Nadarkhani, it would be the first such punishment doled out by that nation for apostasy in more than 20 years.
The statement, issued by the State Department’s spokesperson Victoria Nuland, blasts the Iranian government for its duplicitous stance on religious freedom, saying that while the country's leaders “hypocritically claim to promote tolerance, they continue to detain, imprison, harass, and abuse those who simply wish to worship the faith of their choosing.”
The statement adds: “We join the international community in continuing to call on the Iranian government to respect the fundamental rights of all its citizens and uphold its international commitments to protect them.”
Previous reports concerning Nadarkhani's case indicated that Iran’s Supreme Court had annulled the pastor's death sentence. It is clear now, however, that Nadarkhani is being called on to return to Islam. Under Iran’s Sharia laws, those convicted of apostasy may have their lives spared if they “repent” of their alleged apostasy and re-embrace the Islamic faith.
Nadarkhani’s attorney told reporters earlier this week that his client has been facing pressure to renounce Christ.
Nadarkhani was arrested in Rasht on October 13, 2009, while attempting to register his church, according to the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ).
The pastor had turned to the supreme court after his conviction was upheld by an appeal court in Gilan province in September 2010, according to Agence France-Press (AFP).
On June 28, 2011, the supreme court upheld the lower court’s decision and sent the case back to the court in Nadarkhani’s hometown of Rasht, attorney Mohammad Ali Dadkhah told the AFP.
Nadarkhani’s wife had also been convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, but was eventually released on appeal. The couple has two sons, ages 8 and 9.
Nadarkhani converted to Christianity at the age of 19 and heads a small evangelical group called the Church of Iran. Present Truth Ministries, founded by Jason DeMars and which is focused on bringing the Gospel to Muslims and attention to persecution in the Middle East, has been closely following Nadarkhani's case.
A letter purportedly from Nadarkhani to his church was posted on the website. In the letter the pastor tells his congregation not to fear persecution in their homeland, and cites Jesus Christ as his strength.
If the death sentence is eventually carried out, Nadarkhani can expect to be martyred by hanging.
According to the Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, no articles in Iran's legal code refer to “apostasy” as a crime. “It is the low point of any judicial system to sentence a person to death outside of its own legal framework,” said Aaron Rhodes, a spokesperson for the the organization. The group points to Articles 13 and 26 of the Islamic republic's constitution.
A copy of Iran's constitution is posted on the Iran Chamber Society's website. On it, Articles 12, 13, and 26 read, respectively:
The official religion of Iran is Islam and the Twelver Ja'fari school [in usual al-Din and fiqh], and this principle will remain eternally immutable. …
Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian Iranians are the only recognized religious minorities, who, within the limits of the law, are free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies, and to act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education.
Political parties, societies, political and craft associations, and Islamic or recognized minority religious associations may be freely brought into being, provided that no violation is involved of the principles of independence, freedom, national unity, Islamic standards, and the foundations of the Islamic Republic. No person may be prevented from joining, or compelled to join, one of the above.
The Iran Chamber Society describes itself as "a non-partisan and non-profit organization with the aim to promote Iranian culture and history.“