WASHINGTON (BP)–An Iranian pastor facing a death sentence remained in jail Thursday as the White House publicly asked Iran to release him and friends of the pastor urged the international community to maintain its pressure.
Yousef Nadarkhani, pastor of a 400-member church, could be executed at any moment in Iran for refusing to deny his Christian faith. He was arrested in 2009 and subsequently charged with apostasy for leaving Islam, although a court investigation this year revealed that he had never been a Muslim. But the court upheld his death sentence because, it said, he had Muslim ancestry. Iran hasn’t executed someone for apostasy since 1990.
Four times this week he went to court and was given a chance to recant, and he refused each time.
Rumors swirled Wednesday night and Thursday morning about Nadarkhani’s fate, with some of them indicating his release was forthcoming. But such news was false, and religious liberty groups said Iran potentially was starting rumors in order to try and lessen international pressure. The pastor has a wife and two young sons.
“The report of the overturning of Pastor Yousef’s death sentence is incorrect and possibly deliberate disinformation from Iran’s government,” Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center on Religious Freedom and a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said in a NationalReview.com post. “The letters to members of Congress, prayers, and other actions are needed more than ever.”
The American Center for Law and Justice quoted Nadarkhani’s attorney as encouraging the international community to, in the words of the legal group, “continue to cry out for” Nadarkhani’s release.
The White House released its first public statement on the matter, calling faith 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,” the White House statement read. “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.”
Speaker of the House John Boehner and British Foreign Secretary William Hague released statements Wednesday calling on Iran to release the pastor.
In the United Kingdom, a religious liberty organization, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, is organizing a Friday protest at the Iranian embassy in London in support of Nadarkhani. Also, the group said 20,000 people had emailed the embassy in a campaign organized by the group.
“We are urging everyone not to draw conclusions until a formal written verdict is received from the court within the next week,” Christian Solidarity Worldwide wrote on its website. “In the meantime we need to keep up pressure on the Iranian regime to prevent his execution.”
Nadarkhani’s refusal to recant has inspired Christians worldwide. The American Center for Law and Justice reported one of Nadarkhani’s court exchanges.
“Repent means to return. What should I return to? To the blasphemy that I had before my faith in Christ?” he asked.
“To the religion of your ancestors, Islam,” the judge reportedly replied.
“I cannot,” Nadarkhani responded.
Firouz Sadegh-Khandjani, a friend of Nadarkhani’s and a member of the council of elders for the Church of Iran, said Tuesday that the pastor was arrested in 2009 for complaining about what his son was taught in school.
“He protested to the decision of the government to teach the Quran to his son,” Sadegh-Khandjani said on the Jordan Sekulow radio program. “He told them, ‘I’m Christian and I would like that my children receive Christian teachings — not Muslim teachings.’ So they arrested him and they condemned him to death for apostasy.”
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press.