Iranian Pastor on Death Row May Be ‘Test’ Case for Iran's New Apostasy Provisions

September 28, 2011 - 3:55 AM
Iran clergy

Revisions to Iran’s penal code, provisionally approved by lawmakers in 2008 but yet to be formally implemented, for the first time make apostasy a capital offense. This file picture shows supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei leading top clerics in prayer. (AP Photo)

(Editor’s update: U.S. House Speaker John Boehner on Wednesday urged Iran’s leaders to spare Youcef Nadarkhani’s life and release him unconditionally. “While Iran’s government claims to promote tolerance, it continues to imprison many of its people because of their faith,” he said. “This goes beyond the law to an issue of fundamental respect for human dignity.”)

(CNSNews.com) – An Iranian pastor convicted of “apostasy” could be an early victim of controversial revisions to Iran’s penal code, which for the first time explicitly codify the death penalty for those deemed to have abandoned Islam.

Death sentences for apostasy previously have been handed down under Islamic law (shari’a), but draft amendments to Iran’s penal code, provisionally approved by lawmakers in September 2008, make it a capital offense for adult men.

The changes to the penal code have yet to be formally implemented, but according to a non-denominational Christian organization closely observing the case of Youcef Nadarkhani, there are fears he may be hanged within days under the new provisions – unless he renounces his Christian faith.

Jason DeMars of Present Truth Ministries said his sources close to the case “are concerned that the provincial court will act upon a law, temporarily ratified by parliament, which would allow him to be executed as soon as Thursday.”

“According to my sources, it is customary for new ‘laws’ to go through a testing phase before actually being passed,” DeMars told CNSNews.com. “They say that this particular ‘law’ is being tested on Mr. Nadarkhani.”

Iran Yosef Nadarkhani

Iranian Evangelical pastor Yosef Nadarkhani has been sentenced to death for apostasy. (Photo: ACLJ)

He said Nadarkhani appeared briefly again in court on Tuesday morning, was again asked to recant his faith in Christ, and again refused. Another, similar hearing was reportedly scheduled for Wednesday morning.

According to Mohabat News, an independent Iranian Christian news agency, the court in the northern Gilan province was cleared during the appearance, with security agents forcing everyone to leave except for Nadarkhani and his attorney.

“Special Forces also circled the court building and prevented anyone from entering,” it said.

When first drafted in 2008, the revised penal code triggered protests from Western democracies.

“[I]f the law is adopted, it will be for the first time that the Islamic Republic of Iran had in its criminal code, as a legal stipulation, the death penalty for apostasy,” the European Union said in a Feb. 2008 statement. “In the past, the death penalty has been handed down and carried out in apostasy cases, but it has never before been set down in law.”

The E.U. said the provisions clearly violated Iran’s commitments as a party to international human rights conventions and urged Tehran to reconsider.

Nonetheless, a parliamentary committee in September of that year provisionally approved the amended penal code in a 196-7 vote.

The revised code defines two types of apostates.

An “innate apostate” is a person who at the time of conception had at least one Muslim parent, who after achieving maturity declares himself or herself to be a Muslim, but later leaves Islam.

A “parental apostate” is one whose parents were not Muslims at the time of conception, and who becomes a Muslim after reaching maturity, but “later leaves Islam and returns to blasphemy.”

The “parental apostate” definition also applies to a person who had at least one Muslim parent at the time of conception, and who after reaching maturity embraces a non-Muslim religion (“chooses blasphemy”) without having first declared himself or herself to be a Muslim.

For both “innate” and “parental” male apostates the penalty is death under the revisions. The only difference is that “parental” apostates are to be given three days after final sentencing to “be guided to the right path” and recant, failing which the penalty is to be carried out.

In the case of women convicted in either category, the penalty is life imprisonment. “[D]uring the sentence, under the guidance of the court, hardship will be exercised on her, and she will be guided to the right path and encouraged to recant, and if she recants she will be freed immediately.”

Converts to Christianity are not the only Iranians threatened by the revisions. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in its latest annual report noted that member of the Baha‘i faith are considered apostates from Islam even if they are fourth- or fifth-generation Baha‘i adherents.