An Iranian pastor who was handed the death sentence for apostasy is no longer on death row, his lawyer said Sunday.
Iran’s Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani of the northern city of Rasht, attorney Mohammad Ali Dadkhah told Agence France-Presse. Just days earlier, human rights groups had reported that the Supreme Court had found Nadarkhani guilty of apostasy and upheld the death penalty ruling by a lower court.
Nadarkhani, who was arrested in October 2009, converted from Islam to Christianity in his late teens. The now 32-year-old evangelical house church pastor was first arrested for protesting against Christian children being forced to participate in Muslim religious education in school. Then last year he was sentenced to death for apostasy.
“The Supreme Court has annulled the death sentence and sent the case back to the court in Rasht (his hometown), asking the accused to repent,” said attorney Dadkhah.
“Repent” in the eyes of Islamic sharia law means Pastor Nadarkhani should renounce his conversion.
"CSW is gravely concerned about the judicial process in Pastor Nadarkhani’s case and the precondition to recant his faith. We once again urge the Iranian regime to respect the stipulations of international treaties to which it is party, including the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICPPR), which guarantees freedom of religion and freedom to change one’s religion or belief," said Andrew Johnston, advocacy director of Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
Pastor Nadarkhani’s lawyer said he has only heard the Supreme Court ruling read to him over the phone and he needs to go to Rasht to read it for himself. Lawyer Dadkhah is himself facing 9 years in prison, which a Tehran court handed him on Sunday for “actions and propaganda against the Islamic regime,” according to AFP. He is also barred from practicing law for ten years.
Dadkhah thinks the sentence is a result of his work with the Center for the Defense of Human Rights and for doing interviews with foreign media. He has 20 days to file an appeal.
"Pastor Nadarkhani’s life and Mr. Dadkhah’s future both hang in the balance. The international community must act urgen tly 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 recognised under Iranian civil law," urged Johnston.
The situation of the evangelical church is said to be “dire” in Iran, with the government intensifying its crackdown on Christian leaders.
On January 4, the governor general of Tehran, Morteza Tamadon, reportedly declared that the “final blow towards [Christians] is imminent” and denounced evangelical churches as “false, deviant and corrupt sects.”
Mansour Borji, a pastor of the Iranian Church in London, told the European Parliament’s Iran Delegation in February that there were 202 Christians known to have been arrested and detained since June 2010.
And in 2009, Iranian authorities ordered the country’s largest church that gives public services to stop its Friday prayer gatherings or risk being shut down completely. Several other churches were also victims of the government’s aggressive campaign against the church.
Iran's constitution states that Islam is the official state religion and provides that Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians are recognized as "protected" religious minorities. Despite the protected status, in practice non-Shia Muslims face discrimination and the government severely restricts freedom of religion, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2009 International Religious Freedom Report.