Behind-the-scene efforts by the Holy See, among others, may be helping Youcef Nadarkhani, the Iranian Christian pastor who was tried for abandoning his Islamic faith.
“As is usual in these situations,” the Holy See has been communicating with “the Iranian authorities through diplomatic channels,” Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican Press Office, told the Register early this week.
Father Lombardi did not offer any details of the Holy See’s efforts.
Iran’s state media reported Oct. 11 that the case of Nadarkhani, a pastor of the Protestant evangelical Church of Iran who was arrested in 2009 and sentenced to death in 2010, would go back to the lower court for re-evaluation.
Nadarkhani, a 32-year-old father of two who converted from Islam to Christianity at the age of 19, was arrested after complaining to authorities that his son was forced to read the Quran at school.
Fears that Nadarkhani would be executed for apostasy in the very near future escalated in late September, after the court asked him to disavow his Christian faith on three occasions and he flatly refused.
“The judge kept asking my client to say, ‘I have renounced Christianity, and I recognize Islam as rescinder of all other regions’; and he kept saying, ‘I won’t say that,’” Nadarkhani’s lawyer, Mohammed Ali Dadkhah, told the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
Following condemnations from President Barack Obama and other world leaders, Iranian officials said Oct. 10 that they would allow Ayatollah Al Khamenei, Iran’s spiritual leader and highest authority, to decide whether Nadarkhani would live or die.
The next day, the Iranian Supreme Court ordered the lower court to re-examine the case, citing insufficient research.
In an interview with Fox News, Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based American Center for Law and Justice, said the latest development appears be a sign that the international campaign on the Christian’s behalf is working.
“Based on these reports, Pastor Youcef is alive, and we have reached the highest level of Iranian government. I don’t believe this would’ve ever reached the level of Khamenei without the media attention and outpouring of support we’ve seen.”
Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, concurred that the Iranian government may finally be responding to intense international pressure.
Ghaemi noted that, just last week, an Iranian official said that Nadarkhani was convicted of “rape, conspiracy and Zionism” and not apostasy.
These accusations “are completely baseless and part of a propaganda campaign to deflect attention from the apostasy charges. They have no judicial basis and have never come up in court; and no such charges have been filed,” Ghaemi said.
The human-rights activist said the Iranian government, which “rules by imposing a very selective and hard-line interpretation of Shi’a Islam” is prosecuting Nadarkhani, and members of other religious minorities, because “conversion to other faiths, including Christianity, is on the rise, and the state wants to put an end to this trend by making an example of Nadarkhani.”
Ghaemi firmly believes that the only thing standing between the pastor and the executioner’s chair “is a sustained international protest, which has started with a number of countries making a strong protest.”
At this stage, he continued, “what can save his life is for the Vatican and the Pope to come forward and call for his release, as well as U.N. human-rights officials, including Navi Pillay and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. Sustained international protests and attention is the most likely hope for saving Nadarkhani’s life.”
Like Christians and other minority religious groups throughout much of the Muslim world, Iran’s minority communities — including up to 300,000 Christians and 300,000 Baha’i — face the growing threat of fundamentalist Islam.
In a column in the Kansas City Star, Jennifer Marshall, director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation, said the “increasing persecution” of Christians in the Middle East and their resulting emigration prompted the Catholic archbishop of Baghdad and other leaders to wonder “whether brutal religious oppression could extinguish Christianity in the region altogether.”
The Iranian government, Marshall said, seems determined to do just that. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, notes the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, “has called for an end to the development of Christianity in Iran.”
Sekulow echoed the threat in an interview with EWTN/CNA News.
“If you are not part of the state-sanctioned Islam, a version of Shi’a Islam, then you are an enemy of the state,” Sekulow said. “This applies to Sunni Muslims, evangelical Christians; anyone who is left. You’re not seen as on the side of the country.”
Middle East correspondent Michele Chabin writes from Jerusalem.