Imprisoned Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani has ended a three-week hunger strike protesting the regime's prohibition on his children’s ability to complete their education because they refuse to study Islam.
Christian persecution advocacy organizations Article 18 and Christian Solidarity Worldwide report that Nadarkhani, a former Muslim believer who led a house church in the Gilan province and is serving a 10-year prison sentence in Iran’s notorious Evin prison, ended his hunger strike on Sunday.
The strike began on Sept. 23 to protest the regime’s decision to withhold education certificates from his two children, preventing them from moving on to the next grades because they would not study Islam or read the Quran in school.
Nadharkani’s 15-year-old son, Youeil, was told in September that he could not return to school because he has not been awarded certificates for completing the eighth and ninth grades.
Meanwhile, the pastor’s 17-year-old son, Daniel, was not given a school report card that would have allowed him to enroll for a college education. However, Daniel has been accepted back to the school as a “guest.”
Last year, both boys attended the school as “guests” but we’re also fully paying students, according to Article 18.
The actions against Nadarkhani's sons come as Christians and other religious minorities in Iran are usually exempted from having to study Islam or the Quran in school. However, as Article 18 notes, children of Christian converts are not usually given an exemption from Islamic studies because the government still recognizes them as Muslims.
A 2017 court ruling allowed Daniel to continue at the school as long as he attended the Islamic studies class in a nonparticipatory manner, according to CSW.
CSW, a U.K.-based group that operates in over 20 countries, explained that Nadarkhani offered justification for his hunger strike in a letter to prison authorities.
“This is the cries of a father unjustly imprisoned,” Nadarkhani wrote in the letter appealing to the minister of National Education.
Although the situation for his children has not changed since the letter was written, Nadarkhani reportedly ended his hunger strike because he felt he drew enough attention to the issue.
“CSW continues to call for an end to the practice of denying access to education on account of a child’s religious beliefs, as has been the case for pastor Nadarkhani’s sons,” CSW Chief Executive Merwyn Thomas said in a statement. “Children should not be penalized because of their faith or that of their parents. Moreover, pastor Nadarkhani himself should not be in prison for having adopted a religion or belief of his choice in accordance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is party.”
Thomas again issued a call for the Iranian authorities to release Nadarkhani and other minorities who are “imprisoned on account of their faith.” Over 141,000 people have signed an online petition calling for Nadarkhani's release.
Nadarkhani has long fought for the right to education for Christian children. It was this issue that led to his first arrest and death sentence in 2012. Nadarkhani was acquitted in 2012.
The pastor was arrested again in 2016 with three others and charged with promoting “Zionist Christianity,” violating the national prohibition on alcohol by holding communion, and acting against national security.
According to CSW, children of converts to Christianity often face obstacles when it comes to receiving an education in Iran even though a 2009 fatwa by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei stated that children of Christian converts from Islam have a right to receive a Christian religious education.
Iran is recognized by the U.S. State Department as a “country of particular concern” for "systematic, ongoing, egregious violations" of religious freedom.
The Islamic Republic is ranked as the ninth-worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution on Open Doors USA’s 2019 World Watch List.
Despite the persecution, the underground house church movement in Iran continues to grow. In 2016, Open Doors USA estimated that there were over 450,000 practicing Christians in Iran. In 2018, Open Doors USA estimated as many as 800,000 practicing Christians in Iran.