USCIRF Urges Obama Administration to Demand Release of Pastor Facing Execution in Iran for Apostasy

Guest post by Joseph W

CNN reports:

A Christan pastor in Iran has been sentenced to death for allegedly renouncing his Muslim religion and another faces a possible indictment on the same charge of apostasy, according to a prominent activist group working for human rights in Iran.

Youcef Nadarkhani, a 32-year-old member of the Church of Iran ministry and pastor of an approximately 400-person congregation in the northern city of Rasht, faces death, according to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

In the southern city of Shiraz, another Christian pastor, Behrouz Sadegh-Khanjani, 35, is facing a possible indictment for apostasy.

“This is part of a greater trend of persecution against Christians,” said Firouz Sadegh-Khanjani, brother of Behrouz and member of the Church of Iran’s Executive Council.

Many fear that the execution could take place imminently, although no execution date has yet been set.

What follows is a press release from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom:

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) expressed concern for the fate of a Christian pastor who has been jailed for over one year and is currently being threatened with execution for apostasy. USCIRF urged the Obama Administration to press for his immediate and unconditional release.

“This case is further evidence that there is no transparency or justice in Iran’s so-called legal system for religious minorities,” said Leonard Leo, USCIRF chair. “The Obama Administration must continue to speak out, as Secretary of State Clinton did in August, for Iran’s religious minorities.  International pressure impacts Iran, and the regime has shown leniency in some cases where there is international scrutiny.”

Youcef Nadarkhani, a pastor from Northern Iran, was arrested in October 2009 after he questioned the Muslim monopoly on religious instruction his children were receiving in school, arguing that the Iranian constitution permits parents’ to raise children in their own faith. Mr. Nadarkhani, and later his wife, Fatemeh Passandideh, were charged with apostasy. While his wife was released earlier this month after four months in prison, according to sources in Iran and the U.S. government, Mr. Nadakhani has been charged and reportedly tried and informed orally that he is to receive the death penalty, although no formal verdict has been handed down.

During the past year, the Iranian government’s already poor religious freedom record deteriorated, especially for religious minorities such as Baha’is, Christians and Sufi Muslims. Physical attacks, harassment, detention, arrests, and imprisonment intensified. Even the recognized non-Muslim religious minorities – Jews, Armenian and Assyrian Christians, and Zoroastrians – protected under Iran’s constitution faced increasing discrimination and repression.  Since the disputed June 2009 elections, the Iranian government has intensified its campaign against non-Muslim religious minorities.

“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 the early years of the Iranian revolution,” said 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.”

USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission. USCIRF Commissioners are appointed by the President and the leadership of both political parties in the Senate and the House of Representatives. USCIRF’s principal responsibilities are to review the facts and circumstances of violations of religious freedom internationally and to make policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State and Congress.