Today, Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani stood before an Iranian court for the final time and resisted its demands that he recant his Christian faith. One week after the Catholic News Agency reported that a delegation of Christian and Muslim leaders returned to the United States from Iran “hoping that their six-day visit will improve relations between the two squabbling countries in a way that diplomatic channels have not,” Iran’s Supreme Court has cleared the way for the evangelical leader to be hanged.
Pastor Yousef was arrested in October 2009 as he tried to register his church with authorities. Iranian judicial authorities could not establish that the evangelical pastor, now in his mid-thirties, had ever been a practicing Muslim.
He nevertheless has been convicted of apostasy for converting to Christianity as a teenager. Christian Solidarity Worldwide reports: “The death sentence isn’t specifically prescribed for apostasy under Iranian law so the Rasht court used a loophole in the constitution and based their verdict on fatwas (religious rulings) by the ‘father’ of Iran’s revolution in 1979, currently Iran’s most influential religious leader.”
Pastor Yousef is married and a father of two young children, and leads a congregation of about 400.
The Washington Post’s blog Religion Right Now posted a piece by Jordan Sekulow that included the following excerpt from court proceedings this week: “When asked to ‘repent’ by the judges, Youcef stated, ‘Repent means to return. What should I return to? To the blasphemy that I had before my faith in Christ?’ The judges replied , ‘To the religion of your ancestors, Islam.’ To which he replied, ‘I cannot.’”
Leonard Leo, chairman of the independent federal agency the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, denounced this week’s developments, stating: “The most recent court proceedings are not only a sham, but are contrary to Iranian law and international human rights standards, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a party.”
So far, there’s been no reaction to this week’s developments from Secretary of State Clinton, in contrast to U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague, who issued a protest.
There has also been a notable lack of interest from the main religious and human-rights groups that led the American campaign on behalf of the two American hikers freed last week from an Iranian prison. If the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Episcopal Church, the National Council of Churches, and the National Association of Evangelicals believe that special pleading for Christians will only do more harm, they should take a lesson from the past. In 2000, Jewish groups organized worldwide interfaith protests, candlelight vigils, and prayer services on behalf of 13 Jewish Iranians were accused of being Zionist spies. All 13 were eventually freed.
— Nina Shea is director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and co-author, with Paul Marshall, of Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedoms Worldwide (Oxford University Press, November 2011).