New Fears for Iranian Pastor on Death Row Who Refuses to Renounce His Christian Faith

February 21, 2012 - 5:23 AM

(Editor’s update: The American Center for Law and Justice said Tuesday it had received information that Iran may have issued an execution order for Youcef Nadarkhani.

“As of today, we cannot confirm that Pastor Youcef is alive,” said executive director Jordan Sekulow. “With Iran now dominating international headlines because of its military actions, it’s clear Iran may have decided to move forward by issuing an execution order, knowing that the world’s attention is focused elsewhere right now. We also know that Iran’s top officials can reject the execution order and release Pastor Youcef if they so desire. We will keep the international pressure on Iran to free Pastor Youcef.”)

Youcef Nadarkhani

Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani has been sentenced to death for apostasy. (Photo: ACLJ)

(CNSNews.com) – In what it described as “an extremely dangerous turn of events,” the American Center for Law and Justice said Monday it had learned from contacts inside Iran that Youcef Nadarkhani, the Christian pastor on death row for “apostasy,” looks increasingly likely to be executed.

“Pastor Youcef’s case had been stalled due to increased international pressure and the Iranian court’s request that Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, decide Pastor Youcef’s fate,” said ACLJ executive director Jordan Sekulow.

“Now, because Pastor Youcef has continually refused to give into the regime’s demands that he renounce his Christian faith, the likelihood that the Iranian regime will execute him increases by the day.”

Nadarkhani, a married father of two young children, was arrested in October 2009 and has been sentenced to hang for “apostasy.”

His death sentence was upheld by Iran’s Supreme Court last July, but three months later the case – which was making waves internationally – was referred to Khamenei. The supreme leader was expected to make a ruling on whether the pastor, who embraced Christianity at the age of 19, was an apostate under Islamic law (shari’a).

The case appears to have unsettled the Iranian regime, which unlike some other Islamic governments insists in international forums that it respects the rights of religious minorities, and it tried various approaches to resolve the matter quietly.

Late last year, advocacy groups said they had received unconfirmed reports indicating that the case had been delayed – by anywhere from four months to a year – to provide more time to persuade Nadarkhani to recant his faith in Jesus Christ.

In mid-January, Christian Solidarity Worldwide said it had learned that authorities in Rasht, Nadarkhani’s home city in the north of the country, had offered him freedom in return for agreeing to declare that Mohammed was a messenger sent by God, an apparent attempt to secure an indirect repudiation of his faith. It said Nadarkhani had declined the offer.

“Just as the initial conviction of Pastor Nadarkhani is illegal under Iranian law, the recent offer made by the authorities in Rasht is a violation of the Iranian constitution, and of international covenants to which Iran is a signatory that guarantee freedom of religion and freedom to change one’s religion,” said CSW chief executive Mervyn Thomas.

Sekulow of the ACLJ, which has led advocacy efforts in the U.S. on the pastor’s behalf, said Monday it was more critical than ever to increase the pressure on Tehran to overturn the death sentence and release Nadarkhani.

The ACLJ is continuing to work with Pastor Youcef’s attorney in Iran, the State Department, and Members of Congress in an effort to save Pastor Youcef’s life.”

On Friday, Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) introduced in the House of Representatives a resolution condemning the Iranian government “for its state-sponsored persecution of religious minorities” in violation of international covenants and calling on Iran “to exonerate and immediately release Youcef Nadarkhani and all other individuals held or charged on account of their religion.”

The resolution, which was referred to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has Republicans and Democrats among its six co-sponsors – Reps. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), Frank Wolf (R-Va.), John Carter (R-Texas), Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), James McGovern (D-Mass.) and Heath Shuler (D-N.C.).

The ACLJ is urging Americans to sign a new petition, urging all members of Congress to support the resolution. Around 30,000 had done so by early Tuesday.

“We are very grateful for the support of those Members of Congress who are standing for religious liberty and freedom and demanding that Iran release Pastor Nadarkhani immediately,” said Sekulow.

Iran’s treatment of Nadarkhani was condemned by the White House last September and by the State Department in July.

Last month, Nadarkhani’s case was featured during a 90-minute debate on human rights in Iran in Britain’s House of Commons.

Lawmakers discussed the pastor as well as other imprisoned Iranian Christians, and also heard about the plight of the Baha’i, who are also frequently accused of apostasy despite in many cases having been Baha’i adherents for many generations.

A British government representative undertook to raise the concerns at the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) when it holds its next session, in March.

The Geneva-based council has in the past examined Iran’s human rights record, with Western nations leading the criticism and Tehran’s Islamist and leftist allies defending it.

In an official submission to the HRC in 2010, Iran stated that members of permitted religious minority groups – Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians – “within the limits of the law, are free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies, and to act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education.”

“The government of the Islamic Republic of Iran and all Muslims are duty-bound to treat non-Muslims in conformity with ethical norms and the principles of Islamic justice and equity, and to respect their human rights,” it said.

Last March the HRC, for the first time since being created in 2006, appointed a special investigator to monitor the Iranian situation. The vote passed in the 47-member council by 21-7, with Bangladesh, China, Cuba, Ecuador, Pakistan and Russia opposed.