Don’t Burn Qur’ans in My Name, Pleads Iranian Pastor on Death Row for ‘Apostasy’

By Patrick Goodenough | May 11, 2012 | 5:07 AM EDT

Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani with his sons, Daniel and Yoel. (Photo courtesy Present Truth Ministries)

( – From his Iranian prison cell, an Iranian pastor sentenced to death for “apostasy” has written to thank people around the world for advocating on his behalf, while expressing dismay at actions “insulting” to other religions.

Youcef Nadarkhani said he periodically hears about media coverage about his case, “for instance being supported by various churches and famous politicians who have asked for my release, or campaigns and human rights activities which are going on against the charges which are applied to me.”

“I do believe that these kind of activities can be very helpful in order to reach freedom, and respecting the human rights in a right way can bring forth great results in this,” he wrote. “I want to appreciate all those are trying to reach to this goal.”

Nadarkhani wrote he was “in perfect health in the flesh and spirit,” asked for ongoing prayer, and voiced the hope that the Iranian authorities will ultimately “do with free will according to their law and commandments which [they] are answerable to.”

A married father of two young children, Nadarkhani was arrested in October 2009 and later sentenced to hang for leaving Islam for Christianity. On several occasions he came under pressure from officials to renounce his faith in Jesus Christ in order to escape the gallows, but refused.

His death sentence was upheld by Iran’s Supreme Court last July, but three months, amid a growing international outcry, the matter was referred to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to determine whether the pastor, who embraced Christianity at the age of 19, was an apostate under Islamic law (shari’a).

Late last month, in an incident streamed live on the Internet, maverick Florida pastor Terry Jones torched a copy of the Qur’an and a sketch depicting Mohammed, in what he said was a protest against Iran’s treatment of Nadarkhani.

The Iranian government condemned the action and demanded an apology from the U.S. government

In his letter, sent to and translated by Jason DeMars of Present Truth Ministries – a friend who has sources close to the case – Nadarkhani denounced what he called “insulting words or activities which make stress and trouble.”

“Insulting the belief of other nations or people, whether they be a majority or minority, is not accepted and is an unworthy deed, specifically for those who have this teaching to love and respect others more than themselves and treat them the same as you want to be treated,” he wrote.

“Then, burning and insulting is not a reverent behavior for a Christian, but it’s worthy to be in obedience to the word of God and humble ourselves to glorify God.”

According to Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) – which has been leading advocacy on Nadarkhani’s behalf – the letter marks “the first time in nearly a year that Pastor Youcef has been able to speak out publicly about his illegal imprisonment in Iran.”

“It is very encouraging that Pastor Youcef is not only able to communicate with the outside world, but that he is aware of the international outcry on his behalf,” Sekulow said. “News of his story is reaching all the way around the world back into the heart of Iran. It is critical that we keep this intense pressure on Iran for his release.”

More than 80,000 people have signed an ACLJ petition urging the U.S. Senate to pass a resolution demanding Nadarkhani’s release.

According to an English translation of Farsi court documents, Nadarkhani was “convicted of turning his back on Islam.”

Nonetheless the Iranian regime has tried various approaches to defuse criticism over the case, including alleging that Nadarkhani was not sentenced to death on religious grounds at all, but was instead guilty of offenses including rape, violence and “being a Zionist.”

In another shift, a government official last March told the U.N. Human Rights Council that the pastor was indeed accused of “offending Islam” (along with other offenses like converting part of his house to use as a church without official permission), but denied that he faced execution.

Youcef, the movie

Meanwhile, the Qur’an burning in Florida has reportedly prompted a leading Iranian pro-regime movie director to plan a documentary on Nadarkhani.

According to Mohabat News, an independent Iranian Christian news agency, Jones’ protest action “has become an excuse for the Islamic Republic to propagandize this issue.”

Filmmaker Nader Talebzadeh told the semi-official Fars news agency that he plans to respond to “the crazy American pastor in a documentary movie on Youcef Nadarkhani’s case.”

Talebzadeh said Iran was not paying sufficient attention to the matter.

“It is not the first time that we overlook this issue,” Mohabat News quoted him as saying. “There have been similar cases in which a group was unjustly formed against us and harmed us because of our lack of attention.”

Providing a glimpse of his likely approach to Nadarkhani’s story, Talebzadeh described him as a “non-pastor” who had been convicted in a criminal case and was linked to a “western propaganda” effort.

Mohabat News said filmmakers in Iran usually must go through a time-consuming process of applying for official approval, but in this case the director appears to be collaborating with and supported by the judicial system.

It said Talebzadeh, who trained in the United States and returned to Iran soon after the Islamic revolution, is attached to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.

Nader Talebzadeh is known to make the films the regime orders him to make,” the news service said. “His experience and presence in a foreign country for some years, is considered an advantage for him because the regime thinks he has quite a good understanding of non-Islamic religions and is able to challenge them.”

In 2008 Talebzadeh directed what was described as the first Islamic movie interpretation of the life of Jesus Christ – in part, he said, as a response to Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.”

Islamic scriptures teach that Jesus was a Muslim prophet – not divine – and say that he was not crucified (Qur’an 4:157). Elsewhere the Qur’an states, “the Christians say: The Messiah is the son of Allah … may Allah destroy them.” Qur’an 9:30).

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow