(CNSNews.com) – The House of Representatives on Thursday passed a resolution calling on Iran to free a Christian pastor sentenced to death for “apostasy.” Youcef Nadarkhani has resisted multiple attempts by Iranian authorities to persuade him to renounce his faith.
The measure passed unanimously, although the voting record appears as 417-1. (Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) voted “no,” but said she did so by mistake and corrected the Congressional Record on the floor after the vote, her spokesperson Ashley Schapitl confirmed.)
GOP presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) was among 10 lawmakers who did not vote.
The resolution, sponsored by Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) with support from Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), condemns Tehran for the “state-sponsored persecution of religious minorities” in violation of international treaties.
It calls on Iran “to exonerate and immediately and unconditionally release Youcef Nadarkhani and all other individuals held or charged on account of their religious or political beliefs.”
“Today, the House spoke with a united voice to call on the government of Iran to live up to their international agreements and release Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani,” Pitts said afterwards. “Pastor Youcef is held in a high security prison under the threat of a death sentence. His only crime: practicing his faith and raising his children as Christians.”
“All religious minorities in Iran suffer under an oppressive government. Many individuals in these groups are imprisoned for practicing their faith,” Pitts added. “I have been proud to stand with Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim elected to Congress, to call for Iran to release Pastor Youcef. He should be allowed to return to his family and worship peacefully.”
Addressing the House, Ellison said, “I seldom bring up my religion. But I am appalled by this. I remember how the early Muslims were persecuted in Mecca and fled, seeking religious freedom. They sought refuge in modern-day Ethiopia, where a Christian king gave them sanctuary. When their persecutors tried to bribe the king to hand them over, the king refused, saying the Muslims would remain under his protection.”
Ellison also used his floor speech to advocate against military action against Iran, saying that he has “been deeply troubled by the recent talk of war.”
“We must not forget that war is the ultimate human rights disaster. It could seal the fate of Pastor Youcef and so many other prisoners of conscience inside Iran,” he said.
“Diplomacy is the best tool to resolve the many crises we face with Iran, including not just Iran’s nuclear program but also the human rights of Iranians like Pastor Youcef.”
The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which has spearheaded international calls for Nadarkhani’s release, said the vote “sends a powerful message that human rights and religious freedom transcend political and religious differences.”
“The truly bipartisan support in the House to stand up for Pastor Youcef and demand his release is extraordinary,” said ACLJ executive director Jordan Sekulow.
“We’re grateful that so many members of Congress – from different political and religious backgrounds – understand the importance of standing up for religious freedom, for human rights.”
Sekulow said a similar resolution was now being introduced in the U.S. Senate.
Nadarkhani, who is married and has two young sons, has been behind bars for 871 days.
The pastor, who embraced Christianity more than a decade ago at the age of 19, was sentenced to death in late 2010 for “apostasy.”
He appealed, and the Supreme Court ruled last July that the lower court must reexamine whether Nadarkhani was a practicing Muslim at the time he became a Christian. If he was and if he failed to “repent,” the court ruled, the execution must go ahead.
Over the following months he was urged repeatedly to renounce his faith in Jesus Christ in return for clemency, but refused. In October the case was referred to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Almost two weeks ago the ACLJ and other organizations involved in his case learned that an execution order had been issued, raising fears that the authorities could hang Nadarkhani at any time, without warning – a common practice in Iran.
As part of its campaigning, the ACLJ organized a petition calling for all House members to approve Pitts’ resolution. More than 180,000 people added their support in recent days.
The ACLJ also has a social media campaign underway: People with Twitter accounts are invited to sign up, allowing the organization to send out one message a day via their accounts, updating the situation.
“Our Tweet for Youcef campaign is closing in on reaching one million Twitter accounts around the globe, a vital tool in keeping Pastor Youcef in the media spotlight keeping pressure on Iran,” Sekulow said.
According to the ACLJ, among those lending support to the Nadarkhani Twitter campaign are former presidential candidate Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-Minn.), business tycoon Donald Trump, conservative author Ann Coulter, conservative political commentator Michelle Malkin – and Brazilian soccer star Ricardo Kaka, “the 17th most followed person on Twitter in the world with over 8.8 million followers.”