Yousef Nadarkhani, a 34-year-old Christian cleric, is facing death for apostasy against a faith he never held. The Islamic Republic of Iran has accused Mr. Nadarkhani, a pastor of the evangelical Church of Iran, of the capital offense of forsaking Islam.
Mr. Nadarkhani was arrested in his home city of Rasht in October 2009 after he questioned Islamic control over religious instruction of Iranian children. He was charged initially with illegal protest, but that was raised to the more serious crimes of apostasy and evangelizing Muslims. He was convicted and sentenced to death. Mr. Nadarkhani’s wife was handed life in prison. His attorney, Iranian human rights lawyer Mohammed Ali Dadkhah, was convicted separately of “actions and propaganda against the Islamic regime,” sentenced to nine years in prison and barred from practicing law for a decade.
There are about 300,000 Christians in Iran, most of whom are Armenians. They trace their lineage back to the first century and the introduction of the faith by St. Jude the Apostle. St. Jude was martyred by the Romans in A.D. 65 and to Catholics is the patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes. Mr. Nadarkhani has maintained his equanimity in the face of adversity. “I announce the same as Jude,” he wrote in one of his prison epistles, “earnestly contend for the faith that was once delivered to the saints. … What we are suffering today is difficult, but not unbearable.”
In the fall of 2010, a Revolutionary Tribunal affirmed the death sentence, and the case was appealed to Iran’s Supreme Court. In June, the high court asked the lower court in Rasht to review whether Mr. Nadarkhani had been a practicing Muslim at the age of maturity, which is 15 in Iran. Prosecutors acknowledged that he had never been a Muslim as an adult but said that the apostasy law still applies because he has “Islamic ancestry.” Hearings are being held this week to give Mr. Nadarkhani the opportunity to recant his faith and avoid execution. On Sunday, when asked to repent his Christian beliefs, Mr. Nadarkhani replied, “Repent means to return. What should I return to?” The court pressed that he should return “to the religion of your ancestors, Islam.” Mr. Nadarkhani said, “I cannot.”
Mr. Nadarkhani may face execution as early as Thursday. The U.S. State Department has registered a protest, but Tehran has shown no response to international pressure. Members of international church groups are fasting and praying for Mr. Nadarkhani, who remains committed to his beliefs even facing the gallows. “I don’t need to write anything further about the basis of faith,” he wrote to his supporters earlier this year. “Let us remember that beyond beautiful or painful feelings, only three things remain: Faith, Hope and Love. It is important for believers to make sure which kind of Faith, Hope and Love will remain.”