To Kill a Christian Pastor

Youcef Nadarkhani awaits execution in Iran for converting to Christianity.

The latest news about the Christian pastor held in Iran for converting from Islam to Christianity is another example of Iran's barbaric and vicious treatment of its religious minorities.

Iranian officials are at the moment trying to convince jailed 34-year-old pastor, Youcef Nadarkhani, who converted to Christianity at age 19, to return to Islam.  Nadarkhani is currently being held in prison in Rasht, awaiting Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s decision on whether he should be executed for converting to Christianity.

In trying to convince Nadarkhani to come back to Islam, Iran’s secret service officials approached the pastor at his prison site and presented him with a book on Islamic literature, telling him they would be back to discuss the material and hear his opinion.

The “we’ll be bac,” scenario is a common tool of the regime, used in cases such as this to either influence the individual or further implicate him. Specifically to Nadarkhani’s situation, the government is trying to persuade him to abandon Christianity and come back to Islam or to have evidence against him as a blasphemer against Islam -- should he reject the material he has been given or speak out against it.

I have a digital copy of the book given to the pastor, a 300-page compilation entitled "Beshaarat-eh Ahdein," meaning “Message of the Two Eras,” referring to the New and Old Testaments. Through various narratives, the book claims Christianity is a fabrication and attempts to establish the superiority of Islam.

Sources close to the pastor and his wife have reported that the pastor has been advised by family members, members of the church and lawyers to remain silent, out of fear that the Iranian government may try to use his statements against him, a strategy of entrapment.

Till now, Nadarkhani’s case has been drawn out and delayed amid heavy and targeted international attention to his case. Iran’s judiciary has been caught in a bind, fearing the ultimate decision will have far-reaching political implications.

If Nadarkhani is released, the judiciary risks appearing disrespectful of the tenets of Shariah law. But if he is executed, Iran will face increasing criticism from the international community, which continues to petition for the pastor’s release.

A few weeks ago, a letter on behalf of the judiciary was sent to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the nation’s highest authority in interpreting Shariah Law, asking him to make the final decision.

It is unusual for the supreme leader to be asked to weigh in on a case, but officials said this case is rare in nature and requires Khamenei’s stamp of approval in order to issue an execution.

Nadarkhani came under the regime’s radar in 2006 when he applied for his church to be registered with the state. According to sources, he was arrested at that time and then soon released.

In 2009, Nadarkhani went to local officials to complain about Islamic indoctrination in his school district, arguing that his children should not be forced to learn about Islam.

He was subsequently arrested and has been held since.

Similar to other highly publicized human rights cases out of Iran, the details of the story have been muddled, in part deliberately caused by the Iranian regime through its state-controlled media. In an effort to distract the media, the Iranian government denied that the charge against Nadarkhani was apostasy, or leaving Islam, and even alleged that he was being held for rape and extortion.

Nadarkhani was arrested in October 2009 and was tried and found guilty of apostasy by a lower court in Gilan, a province in Rasht. He was then given verbal notification of an impending death-by-hanging sentence.

In December, his lawyers appealed the decision, and the case was sent to Iran’s Supreme Court, which by June stated that it upheld the lower court’s decision of execution, provided it could be proven that he had been a practicing Muslim from the age of adulthood, 15 in Islamic law, to age 19, the time when he converted.

In September, the lower court ruled that Nadarkhani had not practiced Islam during his adult life but still upheld the apostasy charge because he was born into a Muslim family. The court then gave Nadarkhani the opportunity to recant, as the law requires a man to be given three chances to recant his beliefs and return to Islam.

Nadarkhani refused.

Apostasy is punishable by death in Shariah law. Article 225 of the Iranian penal code states, "Punishment for an Innate Apostate is death," and "Punishment for a Parental Apostate is death.”

Under this law, a Muslim who converts to Christian is called a mortad, meaning one who leaves Islam. If the convert attempts to convert others, he is called a mortad harbi, or a convert who is waging war against Islam. Death sentences for such individuals are prescribed both by fatwas, or legal decrees, and reinforced by Iran’s penal code.

All religious minorities in Iran, including Bahais, Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians, have faced various forms of persecution and political and social marginalization throughout the regime’s 30-year reign. But the government saves its harshest retribution for those who have abandoned Islam.

Experts credit international support of Nadarkhani in keeping him alive. Christian advocacy groups and human rights organizations have mounted numerous global campaigns and petitions against the Iranian government.

If Nadarkhani’s life is spared, it will be because of the international attention the case has received. Yet, what about the others who are not as fortunate to have multiple petitions, Facebook groups and international organizations championing their causes?  What about the many who remain vulnerable to the regime’s wrath because they are Christian or Bahai, attended a protest or wrote poetry expressing the yearning for freedom?

In light of recent IAEA reports exposing Iran’s ongoing nuclear ambitions, the regime’s human rights cases become only a sideshow of its ideological and nuclear war against the free world.

While our voices are seldom heard in Washington when we petition our administration to stop its futile attempts at negotiation with or sanctions against Iran’s regime to try to impede its nuclear agenda, we have seen that our actions and voices are being heard as we defend the rights of innocent individuals like Nadarkhani.  At the same time, our attention and focus should again be turned toward our biggest ally against the Iranian regime -- its people.

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