Last Saturday brought rare good news on the international religious-freedom front. Two high-profile Christian prisoners who had been severely persecuted under their countries’ Muslim apostasy and blasphemy laws were freed.
In Pakistan, Rimsha Masih, 14 years old and mentally disabled, was released on bail after being arrested on August 16 on charges that she had burned pages from a Koran — an allegation that was bravely refuted by others. There is evidence in the case, whose proceedings continue, that the burnt Koran pages were planted by those who sought to drive Christians from the neighborhood in order to seize their properties, as well as for religious cleansing; 600 Christians were reported to have fled the area after the girl was arrested, fearing an angry mob incited by a local imam, who was later arrested. The country’s powerful religious establishment, the Ulema Council, expressed eagerness to have the girl spared from both prison and the wrath of the mob.
In Iran, Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, imprisoned since 2009 and facing possible execution on charges of apostasy for his conversion to Christianity, was also freed. As Corner readers may recall, Nadarkhani was called before the court three or four times and pressed to recant his faith and, each time, refused. When information about his case leaked to the outside world, Iran’s government claimed the evangelical pastor had really been charged with committing Zionism and rape and embezzlement, not apostasy, though Supreme Court documents affirmed the charge was apostasy. According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide , Nadarkhani was finally acquitted of apostasy but found guilty of evangelizing Muslims, and sentenced to three years in prison and then released because of time already served. A photo of a smiling Nardarkhani rushing into his family’s arms following his release has been posted by the American Center for Law and Justice, which closely followed his case. Nadarkhani, who maintains he had never been a Muslim before his baptism, was arrested after questioning the constitutionality of compulsory Islamic education for his children.
These cases vividly demonstrated the inherent injustice of apostasy and blasphemy laws. And they are not unique; many Christians, other members of religious minorities, and reformist Muslims have endured comparable ordeals that ended in death or lengthy imprisonments for them and general oppression for their fellow countrymen. What is unusual is the international outcry that accompanied both cases. When the injustices became internationally exposed, these countries’ leaders, even leaders within their respective religious establishments, were reluctant to take responsibility for the law or Masih’s or Nadarkhani’s fate. This is undoubtedly a happy turn of events. Two people imprisoned for religious reasons are no longer locked up and separated from their loved ones. Hopefully, they will now be able to emigrate, since vigilante attacks against them remain a serious threat. The road ahead for the defeat of Islamist extremism is even longer. The West must continue to speak up loudly for such victims. It must also find its voice to oppose the underlying problem — the apostasy and blasphemy laws. They are the ideological weapons of mass destruction wielded by extremists within Sunni and Shiite communities, alike. As long as these laws exist, Pakistan and Iran will not be free.
— Nina Shea is director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and co-author with Paul Marshall and Lela Gilbert of the forthcoming book Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2013).