- (Photo: Courtesy of ACLJ.org)
The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a Christian advocacy group, has continued to solicit support from people of all faiths to pressure the Iranian government to release pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who was arrested two years ago and accused of apostasy and is facing a potential death sentence.
In mid-October, the organization launched an electronic petition calling for U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to "to stand up for this Christian pastor - to call on Iran to spare his life."
Most recently, the ACLJ released a video address on its YouTube channel Monday, in which it continues to ask for support from both Christians and people of other faiths in its call for Nadarkhani's release from jail.
Nadarkhani was originally arrested for protesting against Christian children being forced to participate in Muslim religious education in school in Oct. 2009, but his charge was changed to apostasy and attempted evangelizing of Muslims; an crime punished with death in Iran. The pastor was found guilty in the local Gilan province court. He appealed his case in Dec. 2010 to Iran's Supreme Court. The case was then passed back down to the lower Gilan province court, which in turn passed it to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for review. Khamenei, the ultimate spiritual authority in the country, also has strong influence over Iran's judiciary matters and is expected to announce his decision by Nov. 2.
Meanwhile, Nadarkhani is reportedly experiencing attempts from prison authorities to convert him back to Islam. He was born in a Muslim family, but converted to Christianity before he was 15, reportedly the age after which one can no longer renounce Islam.
The paradox, according to Jordan Sekulow, Executive Director of ACLJ, is that the courts have explicitly ruled that Nadarkhani was not a follower of Islam to begin with, and yet he remains in jail.
"They've called him an apostate even though the courts have determined he was not even a Muslim at the age of majority, which is 15 in Iran, but because his parents were Muslims and he has Muslim heritage, he should be put to death," Sekulow said in the video address.
Sekulow has also expressed disappointment that the Iranian Supreme Court did not deal with the case properly but sent it back to the regional court. The Christian activist is concerned that the pastor is little likely to renounce his true faith, Christianity, and therefore faces potential danger.
Nadarkhani has reportedly already refused to renounce his Christian faith in court, and that is why he still faces a possible death sentence.
The ACLJ has been working with the pastor’s legal team, Sekulow said.
"The ACLJ has mounted an aggressive international effort to save his [Nadarkhani’s] life," the organization said in a statement on its website: "We've contacted members of Congress, international leaders, and the news media - working to put pressure on the Iranian government to stop this planned execution that could occur at any time."
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 reportedly face discrimination and the government severely restricts freedom of religion, according to the U.S. Department of State's 2009 International Religious Freedom Report.
The now 32-year-old evangelical house church pastor was sentenced to death for apostasy last year. On July 5, CP reported that Iran's Supreme Court overturned the death sentence, and sent the case back to the court in Rasht (the pastor's hometown), asking the accused to "repent," which in the context of Islamic Sharia law means Nadarkhani should renounce his conversion to Christianity, in order to save his life.
The situation of the evangelical church is said to be "dire" in Iran, with the government intensifying its crackdown on Christian leaders. On Jan. 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."
As CP reported earlier, some 202 Christians were reportedly known to have been arrested and detained since June 2010.
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.
VIDEO address of ACLJ's Executive Director Jordan Sekulow uploaded ot the organization's YouTube channel on Oct. 24: