The past few weeks have shown a great, unified increase in support for Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who has been imprisoned in Iran since Oct. 2009 for his Christian faith. Pressure from the global community has been credited with preventing Iran from carrying out his death sentence, but is it up to the United States to do more?
According to Lindsay Vessey, advocacy director for religious persecution watchdog Open Doors USA, all international persecution cases should receive as much attention as Nadarkhani's has. The United States has shown great resolve in helping Nadarkhani's plight, and Vessey believes that the U.S. should be the world's guiding light in defending religious liberties.
This is one of the reasons why Open Doors USA has created the Presidential Pledge for Religious Freedom, written several months ago in preparation for the upcoming 2012 presidential elections.
The pledge was co-authored by Open Doors USA and Tom Farr, religious scholar and professor at Georgetown University.
According to the pledge's official website, the purpose of the document is to "protect religious freedom in full for all Americans, and will advance international religious freedom as part of American foreign policy."
Social conservative Rick Santorum is the only GOP candidate to have signed the pledge. Open Doors USA does not endorse any specific candidate; rather, the purpose of the pledge is to let voters know where their presidential candidates stand on religious freedom.
According to Vessey, one of the main reasons the pledge was created was to improve the United States' protection of international religious freedom, as exemplified in the aid to Pastor Nadarkhani.
Recently, the Western media was informed that Iranian courts may have issued an execution order for Nadarkhani, who was imprisoned in Oct. 2009 and charged with apostasy and attempting to evangelize Muslims.
Vessey contends that "in some regards, the U.S. is far beyond other countries in our attention to religious freedom," pointing to the passing of the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998.
"In that regard, we made it a formal part of our foreign policy. But there are a lot of things with the creation of those two offices that haven't been done," Vessey told The Christian Post.
"I think there's a lot of room for improvement … We see [religious freedom] taking a backseat to a lot of other issues," Vessey contended.
Critics argue that religious liberty is losing its backing in the U.S. For example, this past year the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom lost one-third of its funding.
Vessey believes it is especially important for the U.S. to take the lead in protecting religious freedom, especially in the case of Youcef Nadarkhani.
Critics agree that international pressure has helped keep Nadarkhani alive. Shortly after his possible execution order was announced, the White House and U.S. Department of State both made announcements condemning Iran for its violation of human rights.
"I think the president of the United States has the biggest pulpit in the world to speak out on human rights and religious freedom issues," Vessey emphasized.
"When we don't use that, it sends a message to other countries' government that it's just not a priority, that we don't care that much about the issue," she added.
Although Vessey believes that international pressure has helped keep Nadarkhani alive, she feels his case is one among many that has actually received international attention.
"This is one case in thousands that actually made the headlines," Vessey pointed out.
"For his sake we are grateful that it did make the headlines," she said, "but there are so many more cases and actually other countries where religious freedom is severely violated and the international community is practically ignoring it."