Execution Looms for Iranian Pastor Who Refuses to Renounce His Christian Faith

Patrick Goodenough | September 27, 2011 | 4:41am EDT
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Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani has been sentenced to death for apostasy. (Photo: ACLJ)

(CNSNews.com) – An Iranian pastor who refuses to renounce his Christian faith could be hanged as soon as Wednesday, after a trial court ruling this week upheld his death sentence for “apostasy.”

Religious freedom advocates are calling urgently for governments to take up the case of Youcef Nadarkhani, a 32-year-old evangelical first sentenced to death late last year. If the sentence is carried out he will be the first Iranian Christian known to have been executed for his faith in 21 years.

Nadarkhani embraced Christianity at the age of 19, and since his Supreme Court appeal last June, proceedings focused on the question of whether he was a practicing Muslim at the time.

According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), although a court subsequently determined that he was not a practicing Muslim adult when he became a Christian “the court has decided that he remains guilty of apostasy because he has Muslim ancestry.”

Back in court on Sunday and Monday this week, Nadarkhani faced renewed pressure to disavow his faith, on pain on death. CSW cited sources close the case as saying two more sessions have been scheduled, for Tuesday and Wednesday – and “if he continues to refuse, he will be executed thereafter.”

Nadarkhani’s lawyer, Mohammed Ali Dadkhah, has argued that the demand for his client to recant violates Iranian law and the constitution.

However, CSW reported that “the court replied that the verdict of the Supreme Court must be applied, regardless of the illegality of the demand.”

“CSW is calling on key members of the international community to urgently raise Pastor Nadarkhani’s case with the Iranian authorities,” said CSW special ambassador Stuart Windsor. “His life depends on it.”

Windsor said the verdict violated Iran’s international obligations as a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees freedom of religion and freedom to change religion.

Further, article 23 of the Iranian Constitution states, “The investigation of individuals’ beliefs is forbidden, and no one may be molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief.”

Nadarkhani was first arrested in October 2009, reportedly for objecting to the teaching of Islam to Christian children at Iranian schools. The indictment against him accused him of organizing evangelistic meetings, sharing his faith and inviting others to convert, running a house church and “denying Islamic values.”

American Center for Law and Justice executive director Jordan Sekulow said Monday the ACLJ was “continuing to work with Members of Congress and are urging the State Department to get involved” to save Nadarkhani’s life.

“The ACLJ’s sources report although Pastor Youcef’s attorneys will attempt to appeal the case, there is no guarantee that the provincial court will not act on its own interpretation of shari’a law and execute pastor Youcef as early as Wednesday,” Sekulow wrote.

Last July State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland raised Nadarkhani’s case, calling in a statement on Tehran to “respect the fundamental rights of all its citizens and uphold its international commitments to protect them.”

“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,” she said.

Nadarkhani’s lawyer, Dadkhah, has also fallen foul of Iran’s legal system. He is currently appealing a nine year prison sentence and 10-year ban on practicing law or teaching, handed down by a Tehran court in July for “actions and propaganda against the Islamic regime.”

‘Disrespect to the prophets’

When the Iranian government presented its human rights record to the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) last year, it claimed in a prepared report to uphold the rights of specified non-Muslim minorities.

“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,” Tehran’s report stated.

At the time Iran’s Islamic and leftist allies rallied round in support, rebuking Western governments for criticizing Tehran.

This year, however, the U.S. and other democracies succeeded in getting the HRC to appoint a “special rapporteur” for human rights in Iran. Ahmed Shaheed, a former foreign minister of the Maldives, was appointed to the post.

In a recent letter to Shaheed, Iranian human rights lawyer Hossein Jadidi urged him to look into the plight of imprisoned Christians.

“The intelligence and the judicial system of Iran deal with Christian converts in illegal ways and raise unfounded accusations against them and not only threaten their lives and human rights, but also introduce them as corrupt and agents of the imperialistic powers,” Jadidi wrote in the letter. A copy was provided by Mohabat News, an independent Iranian Christian news agency.

He said converts were being accused of apostasy, endangering national security and “disrespect to the prophets,” a charge that arises because certain biblical figures – whom Muslims regard as Islamic prophets – are depicted as fallible.

“Iranian authorities believe that when you read the story of the prophets in the Bible, it appears that those prophets have been insulted, and on this basis, they accuse the new converts as being disrespectful to the prophets of God,” Jadidi explained.

(Islamic radicals in Pakistan recently used the same argument to call for the Bible to be banned in that country.)

Apostasy and the Qur’an

The last time a Christian is known to have been executed in Iran for his faith was 21 years ago, when Assemblies of God pastor Hussein Sodmand was hanged after refusing to recant.

Although apostasy is not an offense in the Iranian penal code, the country’s constitution includes a clause (article 167) that says if the basis for a judicial ruling does not exist in the law, judges must turn to “authoritative Islamic sources and authentic fatwa.”

Islamic scholars who argue for the death penalty for apostasy cite texts like sura 4:89 of the Qur’an, which urges Muslims to seize and kill those who turn away. A hadith (the traditional writings and sayings of Mohammed) quotes the prophet as saying, “Any [Muslim] person who has changed his religion, kill him.”

Other scholars say that in order to deserve the death penalty the apostate should not only have converted but also be a danger to the Muslim community.

In Saudi Arabia, apostasy is among a category of offenses – others include rape and murder – punishable by death.

Mauritania’s criminal code provides for a three-day period of reflection and repentance for any Muslim found guilty of apostasy. “If he does not repent within this time limit, he is to be condemned to death as an apostate and his property will be confiscated by the Treasury.”

An Afghan court in 2006 sentenced a Christian convert to death for apostasy, sparking an uproar. Amid pressure from troop-contributing Western countries he was eventually freed and permitted to seek asylum abroad.

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