Note: Since this was written, we have received news that the Iranian Judiciary has issued orders that Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani be executed by hanging. Today, February 23, 2012, the White House issued the following Statement:
“The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms reports that Iranian authorities’ reaffirmed a death sentence for Iranian Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani for the sole reason of his refusal to recant his Christian faith. This action is yet another shocking breach of Iran’s international obligations, its own constitution, and stated religious values. The United States stands in solidarity with Pastor Nadarkhani, his family, and all those who seek to practice their religion without fear of persecution-a fundamental and universal human right. The trial and sentencing process for Pastor Nadarkhani demonstrates the Iranian government’s total disregard for religious freedom, and further demonstrates Iran’s continuing violation of the universal rights of its citizens. The United States calls upon the Iranian authorities to immediately lift the sentence, release Pastor Nadarkhani, and demonstrate a commitment to basic, universal human rights, including freedom of religion. The United States renews its calls for people of conscience and governments around the world to reach out to Iranian authorities and demand Pastor Nadarkhani’s immediate release.”
It is difficult to argue for separation of church and state when you are living in a “theocracy.” Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, 34, learned this fact when he was arrested in October 2009 soon after refusing to allow his children to participate in government-mandated readings of the Quran. Nadarkhani had argued that Iranian law allowed children to be raised in the faith of their parents.
Nadarkhani remained incarcerated and in September 2010, a Gilan Province court ordered him to hang for “convert(ing) to Christianity” and “encourag(ing) other Muslims to convert to Christianity.”
The court did provide an opportunity for Nadarkhani to easily escape the gallows – all he had to do was verbally renounce Christianity. Since then, as of this writing, Nadarkhani has had the choice whether to live or die – just say the words and his freedom will be restored. Yet he refuses and remains behind walls at the Lakan prison.
The court asked him, “Do you believe in the elements of Islam which are the unity of God, resurrection of the dead and the prophethood of great Mohammad?”
Nadarkhani replied, “I believe in the unity of God and the resurrection of the dead but not the prophethood of great Mohammad.”
On June 10, 2010, Nadarkhani’s wife, Fatemah Pasindedih was arrested under charges of apostasy and imprisoned at Lakan. The authorities threatened to take away their children and give them to a Muslim family. Nadarkhani continued to refuse to convert and his wife was tried without an attorney and sentenced to life imprisonment. An attorney was then retained and that decision was appealed and the sentence was overturned and she was released.
Nadarkhani’s death sentence was appealed to the Iranian Supreme Court in December 2010 and on June 28, 2011 the verdict was handed down. He was to be “executed by being hung somehow until his soul is taken from him.” The Court ruled that there was some question as to whether Nadarkhani had previously been a practicing Muslim “from the beginning of puberty” onward and therefore whether he had actually committed apostasy. The lower court was ordered to determine whether he had been a practicing Muslim between the ages of 15 and 19. If he had been a Muslim during that time, then the court could execute him after giving him an additional opportunity to recant.
The lower court held its re-trial between September 25 and 28, 2011. Before the trial even began, he was asked to renounce his faith. Under Islamic Sharia law[i], an apostate is given three days to recant. The court then asked Nadarkhani to renounce his Christianity and “return to the faith of your ancestors.”
As the case progressed, the story caught fire on the Internet and soon news agencies around the world were spreading the story of a young pastor facing death for refusing to renounce his faith. In an attempt to sway attention away from the story, the Iranian state-supported media outlet, Fars News Agency, dismissed claims that the court had passed down the death sentence because of apostasy, and that Nadarkhani had actually been charged with “rape, corruption, and security-related crimes including extortion.”[ii]
The Fars story added that Nadarkhani was a “Zionist” who ran a “corruption” house like a brothel or “opium house.” The alleged charges were not clear as to what Nadarkani had allegedly done.
In response, Nadarkhani’s attorney, Mohammed Ali Dadkhah told told the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, “If he is under trial in another court on other charges, I am not aware. But we only defended him against the death sentence in the case of his charge of apostasy. The charge the court staff announced that I defended during several different court sessions was apostasy and no other charge.”[iii]
Dadkhah, a Iranian Muslim represents Nadarkhani at great personal risk – he himself appealing a sentence of nine years in prison for “actions and propaganda against the Islamic regime,” which is what the government calls his legal human rights work.
Iran’s secret service officials have reportedly given Nadarkhani a book on Islamic literature, and told him that they will return to discuss it with him. The book, entitled “Beshaarat-eh Ahdein,” claims that Christianity is false. If Nadarkhani later discusses the book with authorities and claims that he disagrees with it, this may be a basis for a later charge of blasphemy. As a result, Nadarkhani’s attorneys have advised him to remain silent on the book as any statements he makes could be used against him.
Hillary Clinton, the U.S. Secretary of State released a statement on September 30, 2011 expressing concern about the case and persecution against Zoroastrians, Sufis, and Baha’is. Clinton wrote, “The United States stands with the international community and all Iranians against the Iranian government’s hypocritical statements and actions, and we continue to call for a government that respects the human rights and freedom of all those living in Iran.”
U.S. House Speaker John Boehner said that the prospects for the execution of Nadarkhani, “unless he disavows his Christian faith are distressing for people of every country and creed.”
Today, there are about 300,000 Christians living in Iran – one-half of one percent of the population. Of those, the majority are ethnic Armenians. There are 73 registered individual Christian churches, and almost all Christian activity is illegal. Those who conduct evangelistic activities including publishing pamphlets in Persian languages are harshly punished.
During the early 1990s, religious persecution increased in Iran. In 1993, Pastor Mehdi Dibaj, an Islamic convert was sentenced to die after ten years of imprisonment. Later that year, church leaders were asked to sign a declaration stating that they would not allow Muslims or Muslim converts into their churches. Only two church leaders refused to sign, including Haik Hovsepian who was the Superintendent of the Assemblies of God churches in Iran.
Instead, Hovsepian called the world’s attention to the plight of Iranian Christians. With an increase in international pressure, Dibadj was released from prison on January 19, 1994, only days before he was scheduled to die.[iv]
That same day, Hovsepian vanished from the streets of Tehran, and his body was later found with 26 stab wounds in the chest. Dibadj and three other pastors disappeared and their bodies were later discovered.
Throughout history, it seems that people of most faiths have had some period of persecution and martyrdom for no crime other than telling others what they have chosen to believe. Those who dared to think differently were dangerous to the status quo and they either had to publicly change their mind or face torture or death.
When it comes to church and state issues, Americans have become used to “epic” battles over Nativity scenes, prayers in public schools, or the occasional crucifix in a government office. But in other nations of the world, making the basic choice to believe a certain way can quickly become a matter of life and death.
There is still hope that the sentence will not be carried out.
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[i] Abdurrahmani’l-Djaziri’s Kitabul’l-fiqh ‘ala’l-madhahibi’l-‘arba’a i.e. Apostasy in Islam according to the Four Schools of Islamic Law (Vol. 5, pp. 422-440) First English Edition (Villach): 1997
[ii] “Supreme Court Dismisses Reports on Nadarkhani’s Case,” Fars News Agency. October 7, 2011 Retrieved from http://english.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=9007130274
[iii] “After Trial on Apostasy Charge, Christian Pastor Nadarkhani Accused of Rape and Extortion”.International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. 2011-10-01. Retrieved 2011-10-28.