A number of Islamic, communist and military regimes use criminal charges as a cover when wishing to punish religious activity.
Youcef Nadarkhani was arrested in October 2009, more than a decade after embracing Christianity at the age of 19. Accused of apostasy and evangelizing Muslims he was put on trial, convicted late last year and sentenced to death.
He appealed, and over the past week reports that he had refused the court’s demands to disavow his Christian faith and so faced imminent execution prompted international concern, with the White House, several European governments and the head of the Anglican Church among those calling for his release.
At the weekend – for the first time since his arrest two years ago – an Iranian official introduced the notion that Nadarkhani was guilty of offenses other than religious ones.
Gholam-Ali Rezvani, deputy governor-general of the northern Iranian province where the trial is taking place, accused Western media of “twisting the real story” by focusing on apostasy, according to the semi-official Fars news agency.
“This individual has committed crimes, but his crime is not, as some claim, recanting Islam or converting others to Christianity,” it quoted Rezvani as saying. “He is a Zionist, a traitor and has committed security crimes.”
The report also charged that Nadarkhani had committed “violent crimes, including repeated rape and extortion.”
“Islam is a religion of argument, logic and rationality and has dialogue with other religions,” Rezvani told Fars, adding that “this Islamic state has nothing to do with those who have embraced other religions.”
Iran, officially a Shi’ite theocracy, insists that it upholds freedom of religion because – it says – Islam itself is tolerant of other faiths.
When Iran presented a report on its human rights record to the U.N. Human Rights Council last year, it declared that the rights of specified non-Muslim minorities were respected, and that this was the duty of Muslims everywhere.
“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,” the report stated.
Since it claims to carry out Allah’s will on earth, the Iranian leadership is sensitive to allegations that it mistreats non-Muslims.
Iran is not alone in using allegations of criminal activity as a cover for persecution, a ploy which veteran international religious liberty analyst and advocate Elizabeth Kendal attributes to some governments’ concerns about jeopardizing international economic and diplomatic ties.
“It has long been the case that repressive regimes that want to repress internal dissent whilst maintaining their economic relationship with the West, will not risk the relationship by advancing overt persecution,” she said on Tuesday.
Kendal said authorities in Uzbekistan plant drugs on problematic Christians and then hand down lengthy jail terms “for drug trafficking when in reality they are being removed from society and locked away purely on account of their faith and witness.”
She cited as an example the case of Tohar Haydarov, sentenced last year to 10 years’ imprisonment on drug dealing charges.
Kendal said the 27 year-old Uzbek was being punished for no other reason than because he is a convert from Islam – “but the authorities don’t want to totally risk the U.S. relationship by locking him up for apostasy. And Haydarov is merely one of a multitude of Christians – Chinese, Vietnamese, Turkmen, Uzbek etc. – currently in prison on false charges.”
Although Iran scarcely has a relationship with the West to jeopardize, international pressure may still be effective.
“The West needs to make sure Iran knows that any violent persecution of apostates will attract serious sanctions that will hurt,” Kendal said. “The U.S. and E.U. need to talk to Russia, for Russia would have more leverage vis-a-vis Iran these days.”
(She noted that condemnation of Nadarkhani’s death sentence has been limited to Western governments and advocacy groups. Russia, China, India and the Islamic world have been silent, as has the United Nations.)
Sex, drugs, security
A number of Islamic, communist and military regimes stand accused of using trumped-up charges to punish religious activity.
Saudi Arabia in 2006 arrested a Filipino Christian and – according to the State Department – “falsely charged him with drug possession.” The man was later charged with proselytizing, received 60 lashes and was deported.
China has favored bringing rape charges against troublesome Christians, say religious freedom advocates. The move serves two purposes – smearing the target, and dodging condemnation for blatant persecution.
A Chinese evangelical pastor was sentenced to death in 2001 for “complicity in rape” as well as “using a cult to undermine enforcement of the law.” After international protests the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
When Chinese authorities in 2002 arrested a Korean-American Christian missionary near China’s border with North Korea, they charged him with rape. Korean missionary colleagues said at the time China made a habit of bringing fabricated sex charges in cases involving religion in a bid to damage reputations and sidestep accusations of persecution.
Also in 2002, three Chinese men faced charges of “using a cult to undermine enforcement of the law” – a capital offense – after being caught smuggling thousands of Bibles into China. President Bush was about to visit Beijing, and only pressure from Washington succeeded in getting the charges reduced to the less serious “illegal business practices.” The three were sentenced to 2-3 years’ imprisonment.
Three years later, a prominent house church pastor was imprisoned for three years for “illegal business practices.” Cai Zhuohua’s lawyers told CNSNews at the time that his actual “offense” was printing 200,000 Bibles in a country whose government tightly regulates religious practice. (Beijing only permits an approved publisher to print limited numbers of Bibles, on behalf of the state-sanctioned “patriotic” church.)
In Burma, where about five percent of the 47 million population are Christian, the military junta has for years been accused of cracking down on Protestants, especially among the Karen and Chin ethnic minorities, as well as Buddhist monks, also under the cover of protecting state security.
Vietnam’s government has also found ways to circumvent accusations of violating religious freedom.
Nguyen Van Ly, a Catholic priest, has been in and out of Vietnamese prisons for years – more than 17 since the 1970s. After submitting written testimony to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in 2001, he was accused of slandering the Communist Party, convicted on charges of “undermining the state policy of great unity” and imprisoned until 2004..
In 2007 Nguyen was convicted again of political offenses and sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment. He was granted medical parole in 2010, but returned to prison three months ago.
Rights advocates have also recorded abuses targeting Protestant minority Montagnards and Unified Buddhist Church leaders, but Hanoi insists it respects religious freedom.
When Vietnam introduced a new religious ordinance in 2004 – part of its ultimately successful effort to get the U.S. government to lift its designation as a “country of particular concern” – it included a clause forbidding “abuse” of religious freedom to “undermine peace, independence and national unity.”
Another clause allowed the suspension of religious activities deemed to “violate national security” or “negatively affect the unity of the people or the nation’s fine cultural traditions.”
For critics like U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), the ordinance was clearly designed to allow the communist regime to crack down on religious freedom while claiming that its sole concern was state security.