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Iran pastor facing execution any day, but supporters still hopeful
Posted on Feb 23, 2012 | by Michael Foust

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WASHINGTON (BP) -- The White House Thursday increased the international pressure on Iran to release a Christian pastor sentenced to death, as several reports seemed to confirm his execution order had been issued.

The pastor, Yousef (also spelled Youcef) Nadarkhani, was sentenced to death in 2010 for converting from Islam to Christian in a case that began in 2009.

The statement from the Obama administration is its strongest yet from the White House in Nadarkhani's case.

"The United States stands in solidarity with Pastor Nadarkhani, his family, and all those who seek to practice their religion without fear of persecution -- a fundamental and universal human right," the statement read. "The trial and sentencing process for Pastor Nadarkhani demonstrates the Iranian government's total disregard for religious freedom, and further demonstrates Iran's continuing violation of the universal rights of its citizens. The United States calls upon the Iranian authorities to immediately lift the sentence, release Pastor Nadarkhani, and demonstrate a commitment to basic, universal human rights, including freedom of religion."

The statement also urged other nations to join in pressuring Iran, saying, "The United States renews its calls for people of conscience and governments around the world to reach out to Iranian authorities and demand Pastor Nadarkhani's immediate release." The U.S. State Department released a similar statement.

The American Center for Law and Justice was the first organization Tuesday to warn of Nadarkhani's possible death order, quoting its sources as saying an order "may have been issued." On Wednesday a FoxNews.com report went a step further, removing any question and saying the order had been handed down. On Thursday, ACLJ Executive Director Jordan Sekulow told Baptist Press that the secrecy of the Iranian regime prevents anything definite from being known, although ACLJ sources in Iran say the execution order has been issued.

Many times, Sekulow said, something is not known as definitive "until you get the body." In Iran, "they don't have to notify the family. They don't have to notify anybody" about a pending execution.

"I haven't given up hope," Sekulow said. "There are countries that can speak out -- not just our own government and not just Europe. The regime needs to know that we know exactly what they're doing, and they're not going to get away doing it without us telling the world."

The Iranian system is different from those in the West, Sekulow said, because international pressure can make a difference and cause Iranian officials to change course.

"We're at that point again," Sekulow said.

A positive outcome to the current crisis, Sekulow said, would be for an Iranian news service to report that Nadarkhani is alive and is not near execution.

"I would love to be told that we're all liars," Sekulow said. "That's fine. Because if he's still alive -- that's our goal."

Sekulow added, "It's not over."

ACLJ has launched a "Tweet for Youcef" program to spread the news about the pastor around the world. So far, more than 420,000 Twitter accounts have been reached, touching 162 countries. (Learn more at http://aclj.org/Nadarkhani).

The case began in 2009 when Nadarkhani was arrested after complaining that his son was being taught Islam in school. He eventually was sentenced to death by the court of appeals. In 2011 the Iranian Supreme Court upheld the death sentence but ordered a lower court to examine whether Nadarkhani was ever a Muslim -- a fact essential to determine whether he left Islam for Christianity. But that lower court in Rasht, Iran, found that although Nadarkhani was never a practicing Muslim he remained guilty of apostasy because he had Muslim ancestry.

In September, he was given four chances to recant his faith in court and refused each time. His case then was referred to the ayatollah. The American Center for Law and Justice reported one of his court exchanges.

"Repent means to return. What should I return to? To the blasphemy that I had before my faith in Christ?" Nadarkhani asked.

"To the religion of your ancestors, Islam," the judge reportedly replied.

"I cannot," the pastor responded.

Following is the White House's full statement:

"The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms reports that Iranian authorities' reaffirmed a death sentence for Iranian Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani for the sole reason of his refusal to recant his Christian faith. This action is yet another shocking breach of Iran's international obligations, its own constitution, and stated religious values. The United States stands in solidarity with Pastor Nadarkhani, his family, and all those who seek to practice their religion without fear of persecution -- a fundamental and universal human right. The trial and sentencing process for Pastor Nadarkhani demonstrates the Iranian government's total disregard for religious freedom, and further demonstrates Iran's continuing violation of the universal rights of its citizens. The United States calls upon the Iranian authorities to immediately lift the sentence, release Pastor Nadarkhani, and demonstrate a commitment to basic, universal human rights, including freedom of religion. The United States renews its calls for people of conscience and governments around the world to reach out to Iranian authorities and demand Pastor Nadarkhani's immediate release.
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Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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