“While Iran’s leaders hypocritically claim to promote tolerance, they continue to detain, imprison, harass, and abuse those who simply wish to worship the faith of their choosing,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.
“We join the international community in continuing to call on the Iranian government to respect the fundamental rights of all its citizens and uphold its international commitments to protect them.”
Yosef (Youcef) Nadarkhani, a 32 year-old father and evangelical pastor who embraced Christianity at age 19, was arrested in October 2009, reportedly for objecting to the teaching of Islam to Christian children at Iranian schools. The indictment against him accused him of organizing evangelistic meetings, sharing his faith and inviting others to convert, running a house church and “denying Islamic values.”
He was sentenced to death by hanging late last year, and he lodged an appeal with Iran’s Supreme Court.
Late last month, the appeal was reported to have been granted, and his lawyer indicated as much to a news agency on July 3. But it quickly emerged that the ruling was not as straightforward as initially thought.
According to the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), an association established by Iranian human rights advocates in 2009, Nadarkhani and family members have been told that new charges may be brought against the accused man, or the case could be referred back to the original sentencing court, in northern Iran’s Gilan province.
HRANA said the information it obtained indicated that the Gilan court would “question the defendant again in order to determine whether he believes in Islam or not. If he is a Muslim, Yosef Nadarkhani must be released. If it is determined that he is a Christian, he may repent from his faith. Otherwise, if he insists on his beliefs, the death penalty must be carried out.”
The advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) said that despite reports suggesting the death sentence had been annulled, “in reality the Supreme Court appears to have added a precondition requiring him to renounce his faith, or face execution.”
Last week the American Center for Law and Justice sent letters to the State Department, lawmakers and the Iranian mission to the U.N. calling for Nadarkhani’s release.
The Barnabas Fund, an organization working with Christian minorities in Islamic societies and headed by an expert on Islam, reports that Nadarkhani denied apostasy on the grounds that, until becoming a Christian at the age of 19, he had followed no faith.
However, he was born to Muslim parents and, according to Islamic law (shari’a), a child of Muslim parents is considered to be a Muslim.
The last time a Christian is known to have been executed in Iran for his faith was 21 years ago, when Hussein Sodmand, an Assemblies of God pastor, was hanged after refusing to recant.
Apostasy is not an offense in the Iranian penal code, but Iran’s constitution includes a clause that says if a basis for a judicial ruling does not exist in the law, judges may not refuse to hear such cases but must turn to “reliable Islamic sources or a valid fatwa.”
That’s where a person accused of leaving Islam in favor of another religion faces serious difficulties.
Scholars who argue for the death penalty invoke texts like sura 4:89 of the Qur’an, which urges Muslims to seize and kill those who turn away. The Hadith, or traditional writings and sayings of Mohammed, include one (the Sahih al-Bukhari) in which the prophet commands, “Any [Muslim] person who has changed his religion, kill him.”
(Some scholars disagree, arguing that to deserve the death penalty the apostate should not only have converted but must also be a danger to the community. Another Qur’anic injunction, sura 2:256, states “there is no compulsion in religion.”)
The interpretations of shari’a that do uphold death for apostasy say that Muslim men of sound mind who abandon Islam or convert to another faith, and who refuse to return to Islam – usually within a specified, limited period – should be executed.
Mauritania’s criminal code, for instance, provides for a three-day period of reflection and repentance for any Muslim found guilty of apostasy “whether by word or action.” “If he does not repent within this time limit, he is to be condemned to death as an apostate and his property will be confiscated by the Treasury,” it states.
In Afghanistan, Christian convert Abdul Rahman was sentenced to death in 2006 for apostasy, but after the U.S. and other coalition countries put pressure on President Hamid Karzai’s government, he was freed and allowed to seek asylum abroad.
In Saudi Arabia, apostasy is among a category of offenses – others include rape and murder – punishable by death. President Bush used the opportunity of a Saudi-initiated interreligious meeting at the U.N. in 2006 to urge the kingdom to scrap its prohibition on religious conversions.
When an Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) body in 2009 brought together 200 scholars in the United Arab Emirates to discuss various aspects of shari’a, the issue of execution for apostasy divided them,
Arguing in favor of the death penalty, a prominent Saudi religious law professor, Muhammad al-Nujaimi, said scholars in the past had not differed substantively over the issue. They only differed over how quickly the apostate should be executed – whether after three days, a week, or several months, he said.
Saudi media quoted Al-Nujaimi as dismissing criticism from human rights groups. “These groups will never stop attacking Islam even if we were to agree to all their demands,” he said. “We will never allow others to dictate our religion to us.”
‘Islamic justice and equity’
Meanwhile Nadarkhani’s lawyer, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, is also facing the prospect of a lengthy prison term. The semi-official ISNA news agency reported that he was sentenced Monday to nine years’ imprisonment and banned from practicing or teaching law for 10 years. Dadkhah, who represented activists arrested after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed 2009 re-election, was reportedly accused of “actions and propaganda against the Islamic regime.”
“Pastor Nadarkhani’s life and Mr. Dadkhah’s future both hang in the balance,” said CSW advocacy director Andrew Johnston.
“The international community must act urgently to press Iran to ensure due process in both cases, and that Pastor Nadarkhani in particular is acquitted of a charge that is not in fact recognized under Iranian civil law.”
Johnston noted that Iran is a signatory to the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees freedom of religion and freedom to change one’s religion or belief.
When the Iranian government presented its human rights record to the U.N. Human Rights Council last year – as part of a revolving process involving every U.N. member state – it claimed in a prepared report to uphold the rights of specified non-Muslim minorities.
“Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian Iranians are the only recognized religious minorities, who, within the limits of the law, are free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies, and to act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education,” it said.
“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.