Nadarkhani Freed Again, But Other Iranian Christians Languish Behind Bars

January 8, 2013 - 4:44 AM

Iranian pastor

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

(CNSNews.com) – Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani’s long battle with the Islamic Republic’s legal authorities took another turn Monday when they released him from prison, 14 days after arresting him on Christmas Day to serve the rest of a three-year sentence for “evangelizing Muslims.”

The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) confirmed that Nadarkhani was released from prison near Rasht, his home city in Iran’s northern Gilan province, early Monday afternoon. The father of two young children had earlier spent more than 1,000 days incarcerated there, sentenced to death for “apostasy.”

Jason DeMars of Present Truth Ministries, who has been closely involved in the case, said the chief attorney of Gilan province allowed him to go free, on the condition that at the end of 30 days he reports to prison to complete final paperwork.

After massive international attention, a court last fall acquitted Nadarkhani of apostasy, but found him guilty of evangelizing Muslims and sentenced him to three years’ imprisonment. Most of that time having already been served, he was released on bail – until December 25.

The decision to arrest him on Christmas Day – the first he was able to spend with his family since he was first taken into custody in October 2009 – drew criticism, with U.S. Reps. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.), and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) in a joint statement last week calling it “particularly cruel.”

“It seems Nadarkhani’s arrest on Christmas day was intended to terrorize Christians and create an atmosphere of insecurity so that they would not gather in one place with Nadarkhani to celebrate Christmas,” commented Mohabat News, an independent Iranian Christian news agency.

Supporters also worried that the authorities might bring fresh charges against him – not an uncommon occurrence in Iran.

ACLJ executive director Jordan Sekulow on Monday welcomed “his release from this unjust and illegal imprisonment. Iran must not be allowed to persecute individuals because of their faith.”

“Pastor Youcef’s release is a direct result of people across the world standing up and demanding his freedom,” Sekulow said. “Iran is watching and responds to immense international pressure. We must continue to demand that Iran stop abusing and persecuting Christians and those willing to defend human rights.”

Nadarkhani put a name and face to the plight of Christians in Iran, where many others are facing hardships too.

Among them, Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-born pastor who lives in the U.S. and has American citizenship, is incarcerated since being arrested last September while visiting his family in Iran.

A convert from Islam, Abedini, 32, helped lead underground house churches in Iran before he and his wife moved to the U.S. in 2005, according to ACLJ, which in a petition is urging the U.S. government to “take all available diplomatic and legislative action” in the case.

Present Truth Ministries has highlighted the case of Behnam Irani, a pastor and convert from Islam, who since 2006 has been harassed, assaulted, arrested several times and twice convicted of security offenses.

Irani is currently serving a prison sentence, sharing a cell with convicted criminals including murderers, is suffering poor health and, according to an update by DeMars at the weekend continues to be denied access to a doctor.

According to the Barnabas Fund, which supports Christians in Islamic societies, about 50 Iranian Christians, most of them converts from Islam, were arrested when police and security agents raided a house church meeting in Tehran on December 27

“The Christians had to hand over their mobile phones and personal information, including passwords to their email and social media accounts, and explain how they had come to accept Christianity,” the organization said.

Most were later released, but there whereabouts of a pastor, Vruir Avanessian, were unknown.

Mohabat News says the 60 year-old, an ordained pastor of Armenian descent, has kidney disease and requires dialysis every two days.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in a 2010 speech said the “home church network” and other “enemies of Islam” are seeking “to undermine people’s faith in Islam and what is held sacred in Islam.” (Photo: Office of the Supreme Leader)

Mohabat tracks the ongoing situation faced by Iran’s Christians to an October 2010 speech by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in which he said the “home church network” and other “enemies of Islam” were seeking “to undermine people’s faith in Islam and what is held sacred in Islam.”

Despite its record, Iran denies that it discriminates against non-Muslims, noting that Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians are “recognized religious minorities.”

“Iran is a land with diverse ethnic and religious communities that live side by side with different traditions, customs and languages,” the government said in a report presented to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva in 2010. “The Iranian society is a successful model of brotherly and peaceful coexistence.”

It said the formation of organizations or societies “pertaining to one of the recognized religious minorities, is permitted, provided they do not violate the principles of independence, freedom, national unity, the criteria of Islam, or the basis of the Islamic Republic.”