(CNSNews.com) – Facing continuing international condemnation over the case of a Christian pastor sentenced to death for apostasy, Iranian authorities are using a variety of tactics in an effort to neutralize a situation that has called into question its flaunted commitment to religious freedom.
As messages in support of Youcef Nadarkhani pour into Iranian diplomatic missions – almost 60,000, according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) – regime officials and media have tried denials, deception and attempts to entrap or discredit him.
Supporters say all are evidently designed to cause distractions and raise doubts in the minds of Christians and others around the world who have expressed dismay about the case.
Advocacy groups are urging concerned people to continue to press for Nadarkhani’s release, and not to be sidetracked from the core issue – the fact that the pastor, who is in his early 30s, married and has two children, has been sentenced to hang for refusing to recant his faith in Jesus Christ.
Nadarkhani, who embraced Christianity aged 19, was sentenced to death late last year for apostasy. Last July the Supreme Court considering his appeal ordered the sentencing court to reexamine whether he had been a practicing Muslim at the time of conversion. “If it can be proved that he was a practicing Muslim as an adult and has not repented, the execution will be carried out,” the ruling stated.
Back before the lower court in his home province of Gilan, Nadarkhani was asked repeatedly to renounce his faith, and refused.
Amid a growing chorus of international condemnation, Iran officials a month ago began to claim that the apostasy story was a fabrication – that Nadarkhani was in fact guilty of offenses including rape, violence and “being a Zionist.”
Despite those claims, an English translation of Farsi court documents states clearly that he was “convicted of turning his back on Islam.”
On October 10, in the clearest sign yet that the spotlight was causing Tehran discomfort, the case was referred to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The regime has since turned to new tactics. The latest, according to ministries with sources close to the case, appears to be an attempt by the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security (MOIS) – which falls under the supreme leader – to entrap the prisoner into blaspheming Islam.
“Recently, Youcef was given a book by MOIS detailing why, they believe, Christianity is a lie and that Islam is the greatest religion,” said Jason DeMars of Present Truth Ministries. “They asked that he read it and give them his opinion of the book. They are still working to convert him back to Islam or else have documented proof that he is a blasphemer against Islam.”
According to the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which has been raising awareness and advocating heavily on Nadarkhani’s behalf, the MOIS agents “requested that Pastor Youcef read and reflect on the materials, instructing him that they would return to discuss the materials with him at a later date.’
“It is unclear whether this visit was an attempt to entrap Pastor Youcef into saying something against Islam, therefore subjecting him to additional punishments for blasphemy; or whether the agents were trying to do away with the international scandal by allowing Pastor Youcef another opportunity to recant his Christian faith and choose to join the Islamic faith,” it said.
CSW said Nadarkhani was advised not to read the Islamic materials, “as he would later be asked questions on them, and any criticism of their contents could open the way to charges of blasphemy, which could be used to justify the death sentence.”
“Reports that non-Muslim prisoners are being forced to comment on Islamic theological works in a manner that could possibly render them vulnerable to mistreatment, and even to charges of blasphemy, indicates that Iran is violating article 23 of its constitution, which forbids the investigation of an individual’s beliefs,” said CSW’s Stuart Windsor.
‘Christians of all denominations face persecution in Iran’
Another approach being used by Iran is what CSW and others see as an attempt to discredit Nadarkhani in the eyes of believing supporters in the West.
State-funded Press TV recently aired a clip on the case. After featuring the judiciary chief of Gilan province again denying the basic facts of the conviction and sentencing, it went on to question whether Nadarkhani was a Christian at all, and whether he was suitably qualified to be a pastor.
DeMars told CNSNews this was an apparent “attempt to separate Youcef from the international Christian church which has mobilized so effectively to bring his case to worldwide attention.”
Through his ministry’s contacts with members of Nadarkhani’s churches and pastors who work with him, DeMars said, “we do know he believes that the Bible is the final authority, there is one God, and that Jesus is the Son of God. He also believes the Holy Spirit is working now to change and transform lives and inspiring him personally to hold fast to the gospel under threat of death.”
“We believe that if someone is willing to confess that Jesus is the Son of God, that their sins have been forgiven by his death on Calvary, and are willing to stand for Jesus in the face of persecution, they deserve all the support we can offer,” he added.
“Pastor Youcef’s credentials or specific doctrinal beliefs are irrelevant,” said ACLJ international legal director Tiffany Barrans, who is in regular contact with Nadarkhani’s attorney.
“The fundamental right of religion, which allows everyone to believe and exercise the faith of their choice, is blind to denominational distinctions or individual credentials. Christians of all denominations, whether as lay members or ordained pastors, face tremendous persecution in Iran,” she said.
“Pastor Youcef has professed that Jesus Christ is Lord and for this, he has been in prison for over two years,” said Barrans. “No man or woman, young or old, educated or uneducated, should spend even one hour in detention let alone two years for choosing to believe in Jesus Christ.”
Support for Nadarkhani has come from a number of Western governments as well as religious leaders and legal and human rights groups. Through a CSW campaign alone, more than 58,000 messages have been sent to Iranian diplomatic missions around the world.
The campaign received a boost when a U.N.-appointed “special rapporteur” on Iran referred to Nadarkhani’s plight and called for his release in his first report to the world body on Iran’s human rights situation, filed last week.
Although Tehran shrugged off Ahmed Shaheed’s report as “biased and politicized,” it was a setback for a regime that often sidesteps criticism at the U.N., with the help of supportive allies.
When Iran went before the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2010 for a routine rights review, its official submission stated that members of permitted religious minority groups – Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians – “within the limits of the law, are free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies, and to act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education.”
“The government of the Islamic Republic of Iran and all Muslims are duty-bound to treat non-Muslims in conformity with ethical norms and the principles of Islamic justice and equity, and to respect their human rights,” it said.