A U.S. government body in charge of monitoring religious freedom in the world is urging the Obama administration to demand Iran that release a Christian pastor who is facing possible execution for apostasy.
The Obama administration should press Iran to release Youcef Nadarkhani, who has been jailed for over one year, expressed the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in a statement Friday. The non-partisan commission noted that past experiences with Iran have shown that pressure from the international community can influence the fate of prisoners.
"This case is further evidence that there is no transparency or justice in Iran's so-called legal system for religious minorities," remarked USCIRF Chair Leonard Leo. "Time is of the essence here. This man's life is at stake. We call upon our government and the international community to press for his release and ensure that Iran takes no extreme action in this case or in others like it."
Nadarkhani, the leader of a church network in Rasht, Iran, was arrested on Oct. 13, 2009, after he objected to the practice of forcing Christian school students – including his own children – to read the Quran. He argued that the Iranian constitution gives parents the right to raise children in their own faith.
The Northern Iranian pastor and later his wife, Fatemeh Passandideh, were charged with apostasy. While Passandideh was released earlier in October after spending four months in jail, according to sources in Iran and the U.S. government, Nadarkhani reportedly was orally informed that he has received the death penalty for apostasy. The Iranian pastor, however, has not yet received a formal verdict on his execution.
According to Present Truth Ministries, which assists the persecuted Church, the execution of Nadarkhani has been delayed. Present Truth Ministries reported last Saturday that Nadarkhani was originally scheduled to be executed on Oct. 24.
"He is currently under a sentence of death, but they are delaying the delivery of the verdict in order to put more pressure on him to turn away from Christ," reported Jason DeMars of Present Truth Ministries.
"Once the written verdict is delivered, there will be 20 days to appeal to the Supreme Court," DeMars added in his ministry's website.
Nadarkhani is believed to have been pressured over the past year to recant his faith and return to Islam.
According to Voice of the Martyrs, if a death sentence is officially handed down and Nadarkhani is executed, his would be the first judicial execution of a Christian in Iran in two decades.
Over the past year, government crackdown on religious minorities has intensified. Several churches in Iran were shut down and a number of converts from Muslim background were arrested and detained. In Iran, it is illegal for Muslims to convert to Christianity, although Christians are allowed to convert to Islam.
Rights groups have suggested that the crackdown against non-Muslim religious minorities is likely related to the disputed June 2009 elections. After last year's election, government forces have cracked down on various citizen groups.
"This pattern of arrest and harassment of religious minorities, coupled with increasing inflammatory rhetoric from President Ahmadinejad and other leaders has not been seen since in the early years of the Iranian revolution," Leo remarked.
USCIRF has urged the Obama administration to continue to speak out, as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did in August, for Iran's religious minorities.