Iranian Pastor Freed From Death Row, But Worries Persist About His Safety

September 10, 2012 - 3:31 AM

youcef Nadarkhani

A photo released by the American Center for Law and Justice shows Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani being greeted by his sons and others after emerging from prison. (Photo: ACLJ)

(CNSNews.com) – Supporters of Youcef Nadarkhani are celebrating the news that the Iranian pastor who was sentenced to hang for embracing Christianity has been acquitted and freed.

They are urging prayers for his safety in the aftermath of a case that has raised greater awareness of shari’a-based apostasy laws in Iran and other Islamic countries. They also note that many other religious minority Iranians face discrimination and mistreatment for their beliefs.

Nadarkhani, in his early 30s, walked free after almost three years behind bars, following a six-hour court appearance Saturday ended with his acquittal on apostasy charges, according to reports reaching organizations that have publicized his plight, including the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) and Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).

CSW cited sources as saying that Nadarkhani was found guilty of an alternative offense, evangelizing Muslims, and given a three-year sentence – but with that time already having been served, he was released.

Jason DeMars of Present Truth Ministries, who has sources close to the case, said that Nadarkhani has been reunited with his family, and quoted him as saying, “Thank you to everyone that has supported me with your prayers.”

Iranian media outlets were silent on the case, as they have been almost universally throughout the three-year episode.

The pastor, a father of two young sons, put a name and a face to long-held concerns about Iran’s treatment of Christians, Baha’is and other religious minorities, despite Tehran’s insistence that it respects religious freedom.

Nadarkhani, who accepted Christianity more than a decade ago, when he was 19, was arrested in October 2009 and sentenced to death late the following year for “apostasy.” Iranian authorities for many months reportedly tried to persuade him to renounce his faith in Jesus Christ in return for his life, an offer he resisted.

Three months after Iran’s Supreme Court upheld the death sentence in mid-2011, the case was referred to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for a  ruling on whether Nadarkhani is indeed an apostate under shari’a.

The case significantly embarrassed the regime, which sought in a number of ways to deny that he was being targeted and punished for his faith at all, introducing other supposed offenses ranging from unapproved building work to violence, rape and “being a Zionist.”

Despite the numerous official denials, an English translation of a Farsi court document stated unambiguously that Nadarkhani was sentenced to death, having been “convicted of turning his back on Islam.”

The document also said Nadarkhani “often participated in Christian worship and organized home church services, evangelizing and has been baptized and baptized others, converting Muslims to Christianity” and that “during court trials he denied the prophecy of Mohammed and the authority of Islam.”

The plight of the young pastor brought protests from numerous Western governments, lawmakers and religious institutions. A bipartisan U.S. House of Representatives resolution, which won massive support, called on Iran “to exonerate and immediately and unconditionally release Youcef Nadarkhani and all other individuals held or charged on account of their religious or political beliefs.”

‘Numerous other Christians persecuted in Iran’

The case galvanized millions of Christians around the world.

Spearheading international calls for his release, the ACLJ organized petitions that drew hundreds of thousands of signatures and ran a social media campaign feeding news and information on the case to more than 3.1 million Twitter accounts a day.

“Today marks a day of celebration,” ACLJ said in a statement. “Your prayers, your advocacy, and your voice has been heard. Please continue to pray for Pastor Youcef’s safety.”

Also calling for prayer was DeMars of Present Truth Ministries, who recalled the case of Mehdi Dibaj, an Iranian Christian convert from Islam and Assemblies of God pastor who was sentenced to death for apostasy in 1993 after being incarcerated for a decade, released in 1994 after an international outcry – and than abducted and killed months later.

“Please don’t forget what happened to Pastor Mehdi Dibaj who had his apostasy charges reversed and then was murdered shortly after his release,” DeMars said. “Pray for [Nadarkhani], his family and everyone involved in his case.”

CSW chief executive Mervyn Thomas called the decision to release Nadarkhani “a triumph for justice and the rule of law.”

“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,” he added. “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.”

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent statutory body, also welcomed the news from Iran, saying Nadarkhani had been “unjustly imprisoned for three years because of his faith.”

“USCIRF calls on the government of Iran to comply with its own laws and international standards of human rights and release all other prisoners of conscience,” commission chairman Katrina Lantos Swett said in a statement.

The ACLJ is organizing an event called 48 Hours for Religious Freedom on Sept. 22-23 – “a worldwide gathering of people of faith to raise international awareness about religious discrimination and persecution so that, together, we can stand against discrimination and persecution wherever they occur.”

The event was originally designed around the Youcef Nadarkhani case, but will go ahead, focused on “the numerous other Christians persecuted in Iran,” it said.

Just last June another Iranian pastor, Farshid Fathi-Malayeri, had a six-year prison sentence upheld, three months after being convicted by a Tehran court of being the chief agent of foreign organizations in Iran and of administering funds for foreign organizations.

“The political charges are apparently a pretext for locking up the pastor, a convert from Islam to Christianity, on account of his faith,” said the Barnabas Fund, a charity that helps Christians in Islamic societies.

Fathi-Malayeri, who was already incarcerated for more than a year before his trial, is serving his sentence in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison.

Present Truth Ministries has also highlighted the case of Behnam Irani, like Nadarkhani a pastor and convert from Islam, who since 2006 has been harassed, assaulted, arrested several times and twice convicted of security offenses.

Irani is currently serving a prison sentence, is reportedly seriously unwell, and faces an uncertain future as a verdict in one of his court cases recommends that prosecutors pursue the death penalty against him, for apostasy.