White House Calls for Release of Iranian Pastor Facing Execution for ‘Apostasy’

Fred Lucas | September 29, 2011 | 4:46pm EDT
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Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani has been sentenced to death for apostasy. (Photo: ACLJ)

Washington (CNSNews.com) – The White House called on Iran Thursday to release a Christian pastor facing possible execution after refusing to renounce his faith. Christian organizations, human rights groups and governments fear that Youcef Nadarkhani may hanged in a matter of days.

“The United States condemns the conviction of Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Thursday, reading a prepared statement. “Pastor Nadarkhani has done nothing more than maintain his devout faith, which is a universal right for all people.”

“That the Iranian authorities would try to force him to renounce that faith violates the religious values they claim to defend, crosses all bounds of decency, and breaches Iran’s own international obligations,” Carney continued.

“A decision to impose the death penalty would further demonstrate the Iranian authorities’ utter disregard for religious freedom, and highlight Iran’s continuing violation of the universal rights of its citizens. We call upon the Iranian authorities to release Pastor Nadarkhani, and demonstrate a commitment to basic, universal human rights, including freedom of religion.”

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Nadarkhani, a 32-year-old evangelical, embraced Christianity at the age of 19. He was arrested in October 2009, and sentenced to death for “apostasy” late last year.

Death sentences for apostasy were previously handed down in Iran under Islamic law (shari’a), but draft amendments to Iran’s penal code, provisionally approved by lawmakers in September 2008, for the first time make it a capital offense for adult men deemed to have abandoned Islam.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) weighed in on the matter Wednesday.

“While Iran’s government claims to promote tolerance, it continues to imprison many of its people because of their faith,” Boehner said. “This goes beyond the law to an issue of fundamental respect for human dignity.”

The pastor appeared in court several times this week. On Thursday his attorney, Mohammed Ali Dadkhah, told the Associated Press he was hopeful of an acquittal.

Present Truth Ministries, an organization with sources inside Iran that has closely followed the trial, cautioned that reports suggesting the sentence has been overturned are untrue. It said it understood a written verdict would be delivered within one week.

Last July State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland issued a statement on the case expressing dismay over reports that Nadarkhani had been given the choice of renouncing his faith or being hanged.

“If carried out, it would be the first execution for apostasy in Iran since 1990,” she said.

“He is just one of thousands who face persecution for their religious beliefs in Iran, including the seven leaders of the Baha’i community whose imprisonment was increased to 20 years for practicing their faith and hundreds of Sufis who have been flogged in public because of their beliefs,” Nuland said. “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.”

When first drafted in 2008, the revised penal code triggered protests from Western democracies.

“[I]f the law is adopted, it will be for the first time that the Islamic Republic of Iran had in its criminal code, as a legal stipulation, the death penalty for apostasy,” the European Union said in a Feb. 2008 statement. “In the past, the death penalty has been handed down and carried out in apostasy cases, but it has never before been set down in law.”

Nonetheless, an Iranian parliamentary committee in September 2008 provisionally approved the amended penal code in a 196-7 vote.

The revised code defines two types of apostates.

An “innate apostate” is a person who at the time of conception had at least one Muslim parent, who after achieving maturity declares himself or herself to be a Muslim, but later leaves Islam.

A “parental apostate” is one whose parents were not Muslims at the time of conception, and who becomes a Muslim after reaching maturity, but “later leaves Islam and returns to blasphemy.” The “parental apostate” definition also applies to a person who had at least one Muslim parent at the time of conception, and who after reaching maturity embraces a non-Muslim religion (“chooses blasphemy”) without having first declared himself or herself to be a Muslim.

For both “innate” and “parental” male apostates the penalty is death under the revisions. The only difference is that “parental” apostates are to be given three days after final sentencing to “be guided to the right path” and recant, failing which the penalty is to be carried out.

In the case of women convicted in either category, the penalty is life imprisonment.

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