20 September 2012
Pastor Nadarkhani released
September 8, 2012, was a day of celebration as Iranian Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, awaiting execution, was acquitted of charges of apostasy. Nadarkhani’s lawyer is reported to have argued in court that Iran was required to respect religious freedom given that it is a signatory to international treaties. The Iran Independent News Service reported that the Pastor’s charges were lowered to evangelising to Muslims, carrying a sentence of three years in jail. Given that he had already served this term Nadarkhani was therefore released to return to his family.
Pastor Youcef was first arrested in Rasht, Iran, in October 2009, shortly after his protest against mandatory Islamic lessons for his child in school, which he considered unconstitutional.Nadarkhani had converted to Christianity aged 19, and despite never being a practising Muslim he was considered to have abandoned Islam, his father’s faith. Nadarkhani received the death sentence for apostasy in 2010, with the Supreme Court upholding this decision in 2011. This was despite the fact that the death penalty was not justified through the Iranian penal code, but rather through a constitutional loophole allowing the verdict to be based upon Shari’a law and fatwas. Nadarkhani was reportedly told in court hearings that if he renounced Christianity he could be freed. He refused however, with Amnesty International reporting that he told the judge "I am resolute in my faith and Christianity and have no wish to recant".
Many groups campaigned for Pastor Youcef’s release, including the American Centre for Law and Justice who commented “Pastor Youcef’s story is an example of how the world can join together to ensure that justice is served and freedom preserved”. Governments including Brazil, the USA, Germany, Britain and France called on the Iranian government for the Pastor’s release, and Alliance members Open Doors and Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) actively encouraged prayer and support for Nadarkhani.In April 2012 thousands joined globally in prayer for his release, with a service in St Paul’s Cathedral dedicated to Pastor Youcef.
Despite this victory it is important that prayer and support continue for both Pastor Youcef and the many Christians and religious minorities facing persecution in Iran. "We commend the Iranian judiciary for this step, which is a triumph for justice and the rule of law," said CSW Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas. "While we rejoice at this wonderful news, we do not forget hundreds of others who are harassed or unjustly detained on account of their faith, and CSW is committed to continue campaigning until all of Iran's religious minorities are able to enjoy religious freedom as guaranteed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is party."
Iran is ranked fifth in the Open Doors World Watch List, making it a country where Christians face some of the most severe persecution in the world. Almost all Christian activity is illegal, with ethnic Persians considered Muslim by definition and therefore apostates if they convert. Ministering to people of a Muslim background is forbidden, and converts can face the death penalty under Shari’a law. Believers face questioning, beatings and arrest, with provisional governor of Tehran, Moreza Tamadon, criticising Christian evangelicalism as a “corrupt and deviant movement”, “a cultural invasion of the enemy”. Other religious minorities including Jews and Zoroastrians are also severely restricted.
Middle East Concern’s 2011 Survey found that in general Iran’s house fellowship leaders are the most targeted by the authorities, with arrests increasing in number and length of detention since early 2009. Increasing pressure upon house churches since October 2010 is considered in part to be due to reported comments by the Supreme Leader describing the house fellowship movement as a threat.
CSW urges the Church to continue in prayer for Pastor Nadarkhani and the hundreds of other Iranians facing imprisonment or harassment for their faith. Prayer is encouraged for:
- Safety, protection and healing for Pastor Nadarkhani and his family, his legal team and all members of the Church of Iran
- Protection, safety and release of Christians and church leaders, including Pastor Farshid Fathi Malayeri
- Full religious freedom in Iran