Pastor Faces Execution in Iran

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A pastor in Iran found guilty
of leaving Islam awaits the outcome of a judicial investigation into his
spiritual background to see if he will be executed or, if possible,
forced to become a Muslim, according to Christian groups with ties in

The court-ordered investigation will take place this fall to determine whether Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, 34,
was a Muslim as a teenager before he became a Christian at 19.

Sept. 22, a regional court sentenced Nadarkhani, who leads a
400-strong house church movement in Rasht, to death by hanging for
“convert(ing) to Christianity” and “encourag(ing) other Muslims to
convert to Christianity.” Nadarkhani’s lawyer appealed the verdict to
the Iranian Supreme Court, in part because the pastor said he had never
actually been a Muslim and therefore could not be found guilty of
abandoning the religion.

The court issued a written response to the appeal on June 12, upholding the death penalty but ordering the investigation.

response to the appeal, which took a month to reach Christian and human
rights groups outside of Iran, reads in part: “According to Part 2 of
Article 265 of the Islamic Republic Criminal Law, this case was received
by and must be returned to the state court of Gilan Section 11, and
further investigated to prove that from puberty (15 years) to 19 he was
not Muslim by his acquaintances, relatives, local elders and Muslims he
frequented. He must repent [of] his Christian faith if this is the
case. No research has been done to prove this; if it can be proved that
he was a practicing Muslim as an adult and has not repented, the
execution will be carried out.”

Even if the investigation
releases him from the charge of apostasy, it is likely the charge of
evangelizing Muslims will still carry a lengthy prison sentence, sources

The charges against Nadarkhani stem from a
complaint he made to local officials over a government decision to teach
Islam to all children at school, regardless of their respective
religions. He was called to appear before a tribunal on Oct. 12, 2009
and arrested the same day. He has been held in government custody since

Advocates familiar with Nadarkhani’s case said
conditions of his imprisonment have varied from solitary confinement to
being allowed visits from family members and his attorney. Jason DeMars,
president of Present Truth Ministries, a group that works with
Christians in Iran, said officials have repeatedly used pressure tactics
to force Nadarkhani to become a Muslim, including threats to seize his
children and arresting his wife on apostasy charges. On June 18, 2010,
officials found Fatemah Pasindedih guilty of the charges, but her
conviction was stricken on appeal, and she was released in October.

has had run-ins with Iranian officials before. In December 2006, he was
arrested on other apostasy-related charges and held for two weeks.
Officials have targeted Nadarkhani, DeMars said, because he leads a
house church movement.

is unclear how officials will conduct the investigation into
Nadarkhani’s spiritual beliefs of almost 20 years ago, but they will not
be able to question his parents, both deceased.

There is
no Iranian criminal statute requiring the execution of those who abandon
Islam. In September 2008 members of the Iranian parliament began
writing a law instituting the death penalty for men, and life
imprisonment for women, who leave Islam. According to the 2011 annual
report issued by the U. S. Commission on International Religious Freedom
(USCIRF), “If the proposed law is passed, it would further endanger the
lives of all converts from Islam.”

According to DeMars, the judges who issued the ruling appear to be relying on at least one fatwa,
or religious edict, written by the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini,
leader of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and on edicts issued by Grand
Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi, a current religious leader in Iran. The
edicts are based upon Shiite interpretations of the Quran and Hadith, a
written record of the sayings and actions of Muhammad.

last person to be executed for “apostasy” in Iran was Hossein Soodmand,
who was hanged on Dec. 3, 1990. Soodmand’s case has parallels with
Nadarkhani’s. Soodmand was also a pastor, and he also became a Christian
as a teenager. Soodmand however, believed in the Islamic religion as a

Iran has a
well-established history of persecuting religious minority and dissident
groups. Last year the government started another in a series of
crackdowns on evangelical Christians. According to last year’s USCIRF
report, the arrests started in June, and by the time the report was
released in April of this year, more than 250 Christians had been
“arbitrarily arrested” throughout Iran.

“In cases
involving offenses based on religious belief, Iranian authorities
typically release prisoners, but leave the charges against them or their
convictions in place in order to be able to threaten them with
re-imprisonment at any future time,” the report stated.

July 9, a convert arrested in the round-ups, Masoud Delijani, was
released after spending more than three months in jail. Officials
required he post the equivalent of $100,000 for bail before he was
released. He is charged with holding Christian meetings in homes. His
court date has not been announced.

Among the most widely
known Christian arrests in Iran were those of Maryam Rostampour and
Marzieh Esmaeilabad. The two converts from Islam were arrested on March
5, 2009, after officials raided their apartments and seized Bibles and
other religious materials. The two women were held for eight months in
Evin Prison until they were temporarily released awaiting trial. In May
2010, they were cleared of charges but instructed to refrain from any
further Christian activity. They have since left Iran.

said treatment of Christians is worse if they are considered to be
evangelical or are leaders. Extrajudicial killings are more common than
judicial executions.

“It is usually leaders that are
singled out, but often new Christians are harassed by being arrested,
interrogated, etc.,” DeMars said. “They have even beaten and tried to
kidnap pastors in the past. There have been pastors who were arrested,
then released and never seen or heard from again. Sometimes their body
parts are found in different places.”

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