Iran’s Supreme Court has upheld a lower court ruling that Yosef Nadarkhani, a 32 year-old Iranian evangelical pastor, must reject his Christian faith or be put to death. It’s the latest incident in the Islamist Republic’s continuous and increased assault on its small Christian population.
Nadarkhani was first arrested on the charge of apostasy (leaving Islam for another faith) in October 2009 and sentenced to death by hanging for his refusal to teach Islam to Christian children. While Nadarkhani hadn’t practiced any faith before he became a Christian at age19, he was born to Muslim parents and thus considered to be a Muslim under Islamic law.
As such, Nadarkhani’s conviction was upheld in September 2010 by a lower Iranian court when it found that he had proven his apostasy by “organizing evangelistic meetings, sharing his faith, inviting others to convert, and running a house church.” At that point, Nadarkhani appealed to Iran’s Supreme Court to have his death sentence reversed but that appeal has now been rejected.
To Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, Nadarkhani’s attorney, the Iranian court decision came as a surprise as only one month ago he had been under the impression that his client’s appeal had been granted. Instead, Nadarkhani now stands to be the first Iranian Christian executed for apostasy since 1990.
Ironically, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah finds himself unable to provide his client further legal assistance as he has just been sentenced by an Iranian court to nine years in jail and a ten year ban on practicing law for “actions and propaganda against the Islamic regime.”
Needless to say, the Iranian court decision brought a quick rebuke from the US State Department, which issued a statement which read in part, “He (Nadarkhani) is just one of thousands who face persecution for their religious beliefs in Iran…While Iran’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.”
Understandably, Nadarkhani’s case has also brought an outcry of protest from a bevy of Christian organizations and human rights groups. One such group, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), has pressed the Iranian government to honor its adherence to the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICPPR), a treaty which Iran signed and one which “guarantees freedom of religion and freedom to change one’s religion or belief.”
Of course, that seems a rather unlikely path that the Iranian government will take. While Iran’s government has claimed that it tolerates other religions – often citing Christians “protected” religious minority status under the Iranian Constitution – the reality is far different. According to the 2010 State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report, Iran’s religious minorities – which represent 2 percent of its population – face “substantial societal discrimination.”
That “societal discrimination” includes a history of harsh government retribution against those who have dared to abandon the Islamic faith, reprisals which have included mass arrests of Christians and other religious minorities. Unfortunately, this suppression has only increased in intensity over the past year.
Specifically, the Iranian government has been targeting Iran’s growing network of “house churches.” While the Iranian government allows officially sanctioned Christian churches, they are closely monitored by Iranian authorities. To avoid that scrutiny, Iranian Christians – many of whom are former Muslims – congregate in private residences for prayer and Bible readings.
As one expert on Iran has said, “The reality is most of the house churches are so hidden that the government can’t do anything, and they know it.” For a regime whose survival necessitates total control over its citizenry, that poses a particularly difficult problem for Iran’s Islamic authorities. Moreover, that threat has only grown stronger since the internal unrest that began in 2009 after the disputed election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
So, it comes as little surprise then that the Iranian government has initiated a clampdown on the house church movement, one that began in earnest in the fall of 2010 when Iran’s Islamic leaders began publicly attacking the house churches. That verbal assault culminated in a speech in October 2010 by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in which he denounced the growth of private house churches that “threaten Islamic faith and deceive young Muslims.”
For many, Khamenei’s comments served as the official go ahead to terminally squelch the house churches and its Christian participants. From December 2010 through January 2011, it has been estimated that Iranian authorities arrested over 120 Iranian Christians, most of whom were converts from Islam. Since January 2011 an additional 285 Christians in 35 Iranian cities have reportedly been arrested.
One of these detainees is Farshid Fathi who – according to the Iranian Christian news agency Mohabat – was jailed without charge in December 2010, kept in solitary confinement, and subjected to psychological torture in an effort to “extract information on Christian networks in Iran.”
However, the whereabouts of people like Fathi are at least known. Others aren’t so lucky. According to Iranian Pastor Hormoz Shariat of the International Antioch Ministries, “Most often the Revolutionary Guards arrest and don’t even tell their family. They can’t have a lawyer, not even a formal charge. Sometimes they get killed without even a formal charge.”
So, tragically, the Islamist state’s diligent efforts to extinguish its Christian presence continue on unabated. As Iranian Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi declared only last week, “We must end the Christian movement.”
Still, that task may prove harder in the end to complete as Iranian church leaders have estimated that there may be at least as many as 100,000 Christians in Iran, up from the few thousand known believers from 1979 when the Islamists took power.
For Yosef Nadarkhani, that fact may provide some comfort, but it will unlikely spare him a date with the hangman’s noose.
Frank Crimi is a writer living in San Diego, California. You can read more of Frank’s work at his blog, www.politicallyunbalanced.com.