By BosNewsLife Middle East Service
“We are dismayed over reports that the Iranian courts are requiring Yousef Nadarkhani to recant his Christian faith or face the death penalty for apostasy – a charge based on his religious beliefs,” said Victoria Nuland, a spokesperson of the U.S. State Department.
“If carried out, it would be the first execution for apostasy”, or leaving Islam, “in Iran since 1990,” Nuland said in a statement. She indirectly referred to the death by hanging of Assemblies of God Pastor Hossein Soodmand.
Her statement came after Iranian Christians expressed doubts last week that the death penalty for Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani had been annulled by the Supreme Court because it added the precondition requiring him to “repent” and renounce his faith.
The pastor’s lawyer, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, also said the Supreme Court sent the case back to the court in his hometown Rasht, the capital of Gilan province. That court had earlier said Nadarkhani must be executed by hanging as he had proved his “apostasy” by “organizing evangelistic meetings and inviting others to Christianity, establishing a house church, baptizing people, expressing his faith to others and, denying Islamic values.”
Nadarkhani, 33, converted from Islam to Christianity at the age of 19 and became a pastor of the evangelicalChurch of Iran. His wife, Fatemeh, was detained last year for her involvement in the church from June 8 to October 11, said her supporters, who also expressed concerns about the future of the couple’s two young sons.
Lawyer Dadkhah said however that he has still not given up hope that his client will be released. “Because apostasy is not mentioned in Iran’s penal code, and apostasy is not considered a crime, then the court has to consider Mr. Nadarkhani’s case in the context of [the crime] ‘insulting the Prophet of Islam,'” he reportedly said.
“In this respect, since my client has not made any insults, he can tell the same to the court.” However not everyone agrees. “From the beginning the Iranian government has been on a campaign to break Pastor Yousef’s faith. It will take a miracle for them to be satisfied by a continuing statement that Pastor Yousef has done nothing wrong,”said Ann Buwalda, executive director of advocacy group Jubilee Campaign USA.
“Instead, it is likely that the Iranian government will take ‘repentance’ to mean the denial of Pastor Yousef’s Christian faith, despite Mr. Dadkhah’s hopes.”
Christian rights activists say however that Dadkhah has sacrificed much to defend Pastor Yousef. “He faces a nine year prison sentence and a ten year ban on his law practice for defending an innocent man,” added Buwalda.
The U.S. State Department’s Nuland said the pastor is among “thousands who face persecution for their religious beliefs in Iran, including the seven leaders of the Baha’i community whose imprisonment was increased to 20 years for practicing their faith and hundreds of Sufis who have been flogged in public because of their beliefs.”
Nuland added that, “While Iran’s leaders hypocritically claim to promote tolerance, they continue to detain, imprison, harass, and abuse those who simply wish to worship the faith of their choosing.”
The U.S. State Department, she said, joins the “international community in continuing to call on the Iranian government to respect the fundamental rights of all its citizens and uphold its international commitments to protect them.” Iran’s government has defended its policies, saying its sometimes harsh sentences are aimed at protecting the Islamic values of Iran.