Asia-Pacific, Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights, North America, Religion

Iranian Man Faces Death over Religious Conversion

Matthew Cardinale

ATLANTA, Georgia, U.S., Jul 18 2011 (IPS) - Faith leaders in the U.S. representing 25 million citizens have expressed outrage about the case of Youcef Nadarkhani, an Iranian man who faces the death penalty if he refuses to recant his Christian faith.

Calling themselves Christian Leaders for a Nuclear Free Iran, the faith leaders sent letters regarding the matter on Jul. 8 to U.S. President Barack Obama, members of Congress, and foreign ambassadors and heads of state. The letter also called on Iran to refrain from developing nuclear weapons.

Nadarkhani is charged with apostasy, the act of a person formally disaffiliating themselves from, or renouncing, a religion.

However, “because apostasy is not mentioned in Iran’s penal code, and apostasy is not considered a crime, then the court has to consider Mr. Nadarkhani’s case in the context of [the crime] ‘insulting the Prophet of Islam’,” Nadarkhani’s attorney, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, said in a statement to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI).

“In this respect, since my client has not made any insults, he can tell the same to the court,” he said.

So is there a way to convert one’s religion without insulting the Prophet?

“Under these legal systems, there’s no way to convert, if you’re Muslim, and changing faith from one to another, even if you became an atheist,” Jordan Sekulow, director of international operations at the American Center for Law and Justice, told IPS.

“If you became Muslim, that wouldn’t be a criminal case. It would be a celebration,” he said.

Dadhkah had told ICHRI that on Jun. 27, Nadarkhani’s death sentence was overturned by the Supreme Court in Qom and was on hold until Nadarkhani repents.

But according to a copy of the verdict obtained by Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), the death sentence was not actually overturned. The verdict asks the lower court in Rasht to reexamine procedural flaws in the case.

The Supreme Court in Iran has “ultimately given local judges a free hand to decide whether to release, execute or retry Mr. Nadarkhani in October,” according to CSW.

“In this ruling it has been stipulated that in case Nadarkhani does not repent, his case file would once again be sent back to the lower court in Rasht. In a way, a complete overturning of the apostasy verdict depends on Nadarkhani’s repentance,” Dadkhah said.

The Iranian government has also charged Dadhkah himself with crimes. He faces 10 years in prison and suspension of his law license for “actions and propaganda against the Islamic regime”.

Nadarkhani may have an easier time appealing his case in the lower court if he repents his faith in Christianity, and Iranian officials are reportedly pressuring him to do so.

One issue the court may be looking at is whether Nadarkhani was a “true Muslim” at the time of his conversion to Christianity.

The Nadarkhani case is considered somewhat shocking even to those familiar with the politics of the Middle East. “What is happening in some strict Islamic law-based countries like Pakistan, they have an apostasy law on the books. But they have a mob rule setting. People lose their life because they storm the jail,” Sekulow said.

“There’s a difference between what happens in Pakistan, where there’s a mob and no justice,” and this case, he said.

“This hasn’t happened since 1990. No one’s been executed by the government for changing their faith. I think the fact they haven’t done it since 1990 is because they know the world reaction is, it’s outrageous,” he said.

“Anti-conversion laws are implemented throughout Islamic law in various ways. For example, in Egypt, the Constitution seems benign, but Article Two of the Constitution says Islam is the religion, and nothing in the Constitution shall conflict with Islam,” Sekulow noted.

“I think we’re at a point where the world doesn’t accept denying religious freedom as a cultural norm,” he added.

Victoria Nuland, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State, said in a Jul. 6 statement, “We are dismayed over reports that the Iranian courts are requiring Youcef Nadarkhani to recant his Christian faith or face the death penalty for apostasy – a charge based on his religious beliefs.”

“While Iran’s leaders hypocritically claim to promote tolerance, they continue to detain, imprison, harass, and abuse those who simply wish to worship the faith of their choosing,” Nuland said.

“We join the international community in continuing to call on the Iranian government to respect the fundamental rights of all its citizens and uphold its international commitments to protect them,” she said.

Nadarkhani, 32, was born to Muslim parents but converted to Christianity at the age of 19. He was the pastor for a congregation of about 400 Christians in Rasht.

Nadarkhani was arrested in October 2009 while trying to register his church, which is part of the nationwide Church of Iran.

On Aug. 23, 2010, Nadarkhani’s apostasy death sentence was upheld by Branch Eleven of the Appeals Court of Gilan Province.

Nadarkhani is currently being held in Rasht Prison.

“He is one of 300 Christians who have been arrested in last year. Some have been released. There’s been a significant crackdown on Christians in the last year,” David Yeghnazar, U.S. director of Elam, an organisation which supports Iranian Christians, told IPS.

Yeghnazar believes the crackdown is in part due to anti-Western sentiments in Iran, but points out Christianity began as an Eastern religion.

“If you’re born in a Muslim family, the expectation is you have to remain in a Muslim family or remain as a Muslim. We call on the government… in Iran, to honour the meaning and the intention of the U.N. Charter… which they signed up to,” he said. “Certainly this case is a clear example of how they’re contravening that charter.”

“We believe in the basic human rights of every person to follow their convictions whether they choose to be a Jew, a Christian, a Bahai, or a Muslim,” he said, predicting that the Iranian government’s efforts may backfire.

“If they follow through, I think, to many Iranians, contrary to the goal of the Iranian regime, he might be seen as a martyr,” Yeghnazar said.

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