By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
TEHRAN/BRUSSELS (BosNewsLife)– The European Union has urged Iran to release evangelical Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani who is facing the death penalty for refusing to recant his faith in Christ and return to Islam, a key European legislator told BosNewsLife.
Nadarkhani, one of hundreds of believers detained in Iran, “already spent two years behind bars and was sentenced to death because he became a Christian and tried to register his house church,” said Peter van Dalen of Dutch party ChristenUnie, or ChristianUnion (CU), in the EU’s European Parliament.
European Commissioner Maria Damanaki shares his concern saying last week that the EU requested Iran to release the pastor immediately, Van Dalen said. Damanaki added that the EU’s executive body, the European Commission, “is closely following the case.”
The 34-year-old Nadarkhani, who is married with two children, was detained in his home city of Rasht in October 2009 while trying to register his house church.
Nadarkhani was eventually found guilty of “apostasy”, or abandoning Islam, in September 2010 and sentenced to death by the court in his home city of Rasht. In June this year Iran’s Supreme Court upheld the death sentence in principal saying he grew up in a Muslim family and did not “repent” for his Christian conversion.
Yet, it also asked the lower court in Rasht to “re-examine” the case.
“Pastor Youcef was [therefore] four times invited [by the court in the northwestern city of Rasht] to recant [his faith] in Christ in order to avoid the execution,” explained Firouz Khandjani, a council member of the pastor’s Church of Iran movement to BosNewsLife earlier. “He answered that he will not,”Khandjani told BosNewsLife.
With international pressure mounting, the Rasht court decided last month to ask Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to rule whether Nadarkhani should be executed.
Iran has denied Nadarkhani faces the death penalty by hanging for his Christian faith, despite court documents confirming this possibility.
Press TV, viewed as a mouthpiece of the government, said recently that Iran “has firmly refuted Western allegations of violating human rights” insisting that “Nadarkhani has a history of committing violent crimes and that he has never received a death penalty for his religious preference.”
The network condemned what it called “Western media” who “manipulated the case of Nadarkhani, a convicted rapist and extortionist in Gilan Province.” Press TV said Western media are “waging an anti-Iran publicity campaign by falsely claiming that his criminal conviction is his conversion to Christianity and acting as a ‘priest.'” The Church of Iran has no priests, but only pastors and elders supervising congregations.
Van Dalen says Nadarkhani’s case symbolizes a wider crackdown on Christian converts and house churches in the strict Islamic nation. “This year alone [at least] over 200 Christians were detained. Many of them remain behind bars,” explained the well-informed legislator.
“Anyone who does not follow the dictator couple [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and [Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali] Ahmadinejad has literally no life. Ofcourse nobody is safe, as women are stoned and youth hanged. But from all Iranians, converted Christians seem to be the most vulnerable,” Van Dalen added. “Ahmadinejad even called for the ‘end of the development of Christianity in Iran’.”
Van Dalen said a European Parliament motion adopted this month urges Iran to respect the international treaties it signed, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. “Article 18 of the treaty explains that religious freedom also include the freedom to convert to another religion. But that’s the biggest problem for Christians in Iran as two thirds of them are believed to be former Muslims.”
Van Dalen told BosNewsLife that the reported human rights abuses prompted him to ask EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to help impose the “toughest possible sanctions” against Iran. “Additionally the EU and its member states in the United Nations Security Council must try to convince China and Russia to participate in the sanctions.”
So far Russia and China opposed sanctions against Iran, which is also under pressure because of its nuclear program.
Iran says the program is for “peaceful purposes”, but Western nations and even the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency suspect Iran of conducting activities related to developing nuclear weapons.