BRUSSELS/WASHINGTON/TEHRAN (BosNewsLife)– Jailed Iranian Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani was believed to be still alive Saturday, February 25, after the European Union and the United States urged Iran not to carry out an execution order and demanded his immediate release.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said through her spokesperson that she is “extremely worried about reports that the execution of Iranian Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani in Rasht, Gilan province, may be imminent.”
Nadarkhani’s ‘Church of Iran’, a large network of house churches, told online news agency BosNewsLife early Tuesday, February 21, that the Gilan Court had again ordered the execution for “apostasy”, or “abandoning Isam”.
“The High Representative has in several instances expressed her serious concerns over the increase in executions in Iran and called on Iran to free the Iranian Pastor, Youcef Nadarkhani and other Iranians sentenced to death for offenses which according to international standards should not result in capital punishment,” Ashton’s spokesperson said.
“The execution of Pastor Nadarkhani on apostasy charges would be another illustration of the deteriorating situation of religious minorities in the Islamic Republic of Iran…She strongly calls on Iran not to execute Pastor Nadarkhani. He should be released immediately,” the statement added.
In Washington, the White House called the execution order “another shocking breach of Iran’s international obligations, its own constitution, and stated religious values.”
It said that “The United States stands in solidarity with Pastor Nadarkhani, his family, and all those who seek to practice their religion without fear of persecution-a fundamental and universal human right. ”
Mark Toner, spokesperson at the U.S. Department of State, released a similar statement this week saying that “We stand with religious and political leaders from around the world in condemning Youcef Nadarkhani’s conviction and call for his immediate release.”
Eighty-nine members of the U.S. Congress signed a letter condemning Iran for their treatment of Nadarkhani and one congressman, Representative Joe Pitts, a Republican from Pennsylvania, issued a House resolution that if passed would stand as a condemnation from the entire House of Representatives.
The last Iranian Christian convert from Islam executed by the Iranian government was Assemblies of God Pastor Hossein Soodmand in 1990.
However several other Christians, including at least six Protestant pastors, are known to have been assassinated by unknown killers in recent years.
Yet, citing from the Bible, Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani wrote in previous letters to his fellow believers not to fear persecution in the strict Islamic nation, saying Jesus Christ gives him strength. “As we’ve heard He has said: “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.”
Some Muslims have condemned the reported execution order. “These types of cases, especially around apostasy, are too frequent occurrences in the Muslim world and as a Muslim, I am appalled,” said Harris Zafar, national spokesman for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.
“To do this in the name of Islam, I know that this isn’t Islam. It is a violation of human rights and it is a violation of Islam,” the US-based Cable News Network (CNN) quoted him as saying in a reaction. Zafar, whose organization is considered more liberal than other Islamic communities, cited de Koran to make his point. “Whosoever will, let him believe, and whosoever will, let him disbelieve,” reads the Koran 18:29.
The apparent execution order came after local Christians said last month that Nadarkhani rejected an offer to be released from prison if he publicly acknowledges Islam’s prophet Mohammed as “a messenger sent by God.”
Christians said the pastor made clear that making the demanded statement about Muhammed would amount to abandoning his faith in Jesus Christ.
The 34-year-old Nadarkhani, who is married with two children, has been detained since 2009 when he was captured in his home city of Rasht to register his house church.
The Gilan Court sentenced Nadarkhani to death in November 2010 on charges of “apostasy”, or abandoning Islam. His appeal against that ruling was seen as being rejected in 2011.
The Supreme Court said “he can be executed” but added it would first ask a “re-examination” by the same court that already sentenced him to death.
The Gilan Court eventually asked Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khameini for an opinion in what critics saw as an attempt to make someone else responsible for his execution. It is not clear what role, if any, Khameini played in the reported decision to hang him for apostasy.