TEHRAN (BP) — A Christian pastor in Iran has twice refused to recant his faith in court and could be executed within days, which would make him the first since 1990 to be put to death by the government for apostasy.
Yousef Nadarkhani, who leads a 400-person house church movement, refused in court on Sept. 25 and Sept. 26 to recant Christianity and was scheduled to get two more chances on Sept. 27 and Sept. 28, according to the British-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), which monitors religious freedom.
If he refuses the next two times to recant, he will be executed, CSW reported.
Unlike the case of the two American hikers who were freed, Nadarkhani’s case has yet to receive widespread worldwide attention, although the Christian community has followed it since his arrest in 2009.
“The American interfaith delegation … who made headlines when they traveled to Tehran and secured the release of the two American hikers last week should pack their bags again,” Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center on Religious Freedom and a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, wrote Sept. 26. “They need to make a return trip. And they better hurry.”
Nadarkhani seemed to have a sliver of hope earlier this year when the Iranian Supreme Court ordered a lower court to examine whether he was ever a Muslim — a fact essential to determine whether he left Islam for Christianity. But that lower court in Rasht, Iran, found that although Nadarkhani was never a practicing Muslim “he remains guilty of apostasy because he has Muslim ancestry,” CSW reported.
Advocates familiar with Nadarkhani’s case said conditions of his imprisonment have varied from solitary confinement to being allowed visits from family members and his attorney. Jason DeMars, president of Present Truth Ministries, a group that works with Christians in Iran, said officials have repeatedly used pressure tactics to force Nadarkhani to become a Muslim, including threats to seize his children and arresting his wife on apostasy charges. During June 2010, officials found his wife, Fatemah Pasindedih, guilty of the charges, but her conviction was stricken on appeal, and she was released in October.
Nadarkhani has had run-ins with Iranian officials before. In December 2006, he was arrested on other apostasy-related charges and held for two weeks. Officials have targeted Nadarkhani, DeMars said, because he leads a house church movement.
There is no Iranian criminal statute requiring the execution of those who abandon Islam.
According to DeMars, the judges who issued the ruling appear to be relying on at least one fatwa, or religious edict, by the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and on edicts issued by Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi, a current religious leader in Iran. The edicts are based upon Shiite interpretations of the Quran and Hadith, a written record of the sayings and actions of Muhammad.
The last person to be executed for “apostasy” in Iran was Hossein Soodmand, who was hanged on Dec. 3, 1990. Soodmand’s case has parallels with Nadarkhani’s. Soodmand also was a pastor, and he also became a Christian as a teenager. Soodmand however, believed in the Islamic religion as a child.
Compiled by Michael Foust, associate editor of Baptist Press, with reporting from Compass Direct News.