- (Photo: REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl)
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has renewed an invitation to Pope Benedict XVI to visit his country, the Iranian ambassador to the Holy See announced Wednesday. The invitation comes amid international calls for Tehran to release Youcef Nadarkhani, an evangelical Christian imprisoned for apostasy.
"If the pope decides to come, we will welcome him in an excellent way, and, as far as the government is concerned we will welcome him with enthusiasm," Ambassador Ali Akbar Naseri told reporters.
Pope Benedict has had a standing invitation to visit the Islamic Republic since Nov. 2010, but has yet to respond to the invite, despite Ambassador Naseri insisting that Iran and the Holy See have had "sincere and cordial" relations for some time.
The call for the head of the Roman Catholic Church to visit Tehran comes as Iran has been capturing international headlines over the persecution case of evangelical Christian Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani.
Nadarkhani has been imprisoned in Iran since 2009, when he was originally arrested for protesting. The married father of two was also charged with apostasy for allegedly departing from Islam.
When told by Iranian authorities to recant his faith, Nadarkhani refused and was sentenced to death for apostasy and attempting to evangelize Muslims.
Several months ago, Nadarkhani's defense lawyer, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, called on Pope Benedict XVI to apply pressure on Iran to release Nadarkhani.
Although the pope did not publicly respond, Christians around the world rallied to pressure their governments to demand the pastor's release.
Following the outburst of international pressure, Nadarkhani's case was transferred from Iran's lower court to the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for review. Many analysts believe that Nadarkhani is still alive due to the international response to his case, but have also expressed concern that he has been facing increased pressure to recant his faith.
Iran has a long track record of persecution and has been considered a country of "particular concern" by the U.S. State Department since 1999. Iran does not recognize the freedom to change religion despite apostasy not being a crime under the Iranian constitution. Iran is also a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
All religious minorities in Iran are subject to persecution, but the Iranian government officially recognizes several minority churches -- so long as they adhere to government demands.
Churches not recognized by Iranian authorities are forced to convene as secret house churches. If discovered, members of these churches can face torture, execution, further discrimination, and detainment.
Some suggest that the religious persecution situation in Iran has become progressively worse following public protests against Ahmadinejad during the 2009 presidential election. In fact, a 2011 report on religious freedom carried out by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom suggests that during 2011 Iranian Christians faced increased persecution.
"The number of incidents of Iranian authorities raiding church services, harassing and threatening church members, and arresting, convicting and imprisoning worshipers and church leaders has increased significantly," according to the report.
Over 200 Christians were arrested in Iran in 2011 and persecution watchdog Open Doors has put Iran at number five on its World Watch List for 2012.