By Amy Kellogg
Iranian evangelical pastor Yousef Nadarkhani has been sentenced to death for apostasy. (Christian Solidarity World)
Iran’s Supreme Court says an evangelical pastor charged with apostasy can be executed if he does not recant his faith, according to a copy of the verdict obtained by a religious rights activist group.
Christian Solidarity World says Iranian-born Yousef Nadarkhani, who was arrested in 2009 and given the death sentence late last year, could have his sentence suspended on the grounds that he renounce his faith.
Those who know him say he is not likely to do that, for if he were disposed to giving it up, he would have done it long ago.
If Nadarkhani does not recant, his fate is unclear. It’s believed his case would then be remanded to lower courts in Iran.
Recently the U.S. State Department issued the following remarks: “We are dismayed over reports that the Iranian courts are requiring Yousef Nadarkhani to recant his faith or face the death penalty for apostasy, a charge based on his religious beliefs. If carried out, it would be the first execution for apostasy in Iran since 1990. 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 twenty years for practicing their faith and hundreds of Sufis who have been flogged in public because of their beliefs.”
Christian and human rights groups say apostasy isn’t even codified in Iranian law.
“From a human rights perspective, you can’t criminalize someone’s choice of religion, much less execute them for that,” says Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
Nadarkhani, from Rasht, on the Caspian Sea, converted to Christianity as a teenager. He is reportedly an effective pastor, who has converted an unknown number of people from Islam to Christianity.
Some believe he has about 400 people in his church.
Iran has ancient Armenian and Assyrian churches. The Evangelical Church of Iran is relatively new, church officials tell Fox News, a product of the legacy of Anglican missionaries who were in Iran in the last two centuries. Even after the Islamic Revolution, Iran been fairly tolerant of the older Armenian and Assyrian orders, which date back to the early days of Christianity, but has been less accepting of Evangelical conversions.
Firouz Khandjani, a spokesman for the evangelical Church of Iran, lives in exile in Eastern Europe. He fled Iran for Turkey for security reasons, but says even in his new homeland he’s not safe, and was informed he could be targeted by Iranian agents in Turkey.
Khandjani says a sort of “soft persecution” began after the Revolution, with Christians generally losing many civil rights, including access to top jobs in the country, but has increased since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office in 2005.
Khandjani himself was arrested and released 18 years ago. But he says about 40 people have been arrested, many of them also released, since Ahmadinejad became President.
“I can’t say Ahmadinejad is persecuting us, but the hard-liners around him are. The leadership needs hard-liners to permit them to do what they want. They need their support.”
It is hard to get a number on how many Evangelical Christians there are in Iran. It is not a large number in this country of 70 million, but reportedly, the numbers continue to grow. The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran estimates there may be 4,000. Khandjani believes the number to be as high as 200,000. Many of them watch evangelical television stations beamed into Iran from the United States.
Ghaemi says, “Most churches in Iran operate with some degree of secrecy. They operate in homes. People take their batteries out of their cellphones and leave them at the door. They show up at random times so as to avoid the appearance of a crowd filing in. The current government sees them as a threat.”
Ghaemi says there had been a tacit agreement between the Ministry of Intelligence and the Church of Iran, whereby if worshippers were open, and told the Ministry where they were going, the government would leave them alone. The government appears to have broken that “gentlemen’s agreement.”
Firouz Khandjani said the church wanted to be out in the open, and had asked to have physical churches in which to operate under the previous presidential administration.
“It was in the time of Khatami. We believed it was possible. He was more open to minority groups, but unfortunately, he didn’t have the will. We had believed in him.”
A court in Shiraz, Iran, recently released a group of Christians who had been arrested for subversion. The court ultimately ruled that they were just exercising their right to practice their religion. Human rights advocates say the higher courts should follow their example.
Sources say while the Iranian regime doesn’t look fondly upon conversion, it is proselytizing that really rankles them.
Khandjani made a plea to America.
“The U.S., which is fighting for freedom, has to take care of this situation. This is the 21st century. We are not a military group. We want to worship God, according to the Gospel, and being persecuted is not acceptable.”