Iran's Ahmadinejad Wants Pope Benedict to Visit Tehran?

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would like Pope Benedict to visit the Iranian capital of Tehran, Iranian ambassador to the Holy See announced on Wednesday.

"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 yet to respond to the invitation.

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The call for the head of the Catholic Church to visit Tehran comes as Iran has been capturing international headlines over the Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani case.

Nadarkhani has been illegally imprisoned in Iran since 2009 when he was originally arrested for protesting. A slue of other charges followed suit including apostasy, or converting to Christianity.

When told by Iranian authorities to to recant his faith, Nadarkhani refused and was sentenced to death for apostasy and attempting to evangelize Muslims.

Several months back, Nadarkhani's defense lawyer, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, called on Pope Benedict to apply pressure on Iran for the release of Nadarkhani.

Although the pope did not publically respond, thousands of Christians around the world rallied to pressure on their governments to demand the release of the pastor.

Analysts believe that Nadarkhani is alive today mainly due to international pressure. His case was transferred from Iran's lower court to the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for review. Although Nadarkhani is still alive, he has been facing increased pressure to recant his faith, according to the American Center for Law and Justice.

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 and despite the fact that Iran is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

All religious minorities in Iran are subject to persecution, but the Iranian government officially recognizes some churches so long as they adhere to government demands.

Churches not recognized by Iranian authorities are forced to hide and develop 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 became progressively worse following public protests against 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 in 2011 Iranian Christians have 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 their World Watch List for 2012.

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