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Pastor faces execution in Tehran for apostasy

Last updated September 29 2011 12:01AM

The Foreign Secretary and the Archbishop of Canterbury intervened last night to try to save a Christian pastor in Iran who has refused to renounce his faith to escape a death sentence.

An Iranian court gave Youcef Nadarkhani, 34, a third and final chance to avoid hanging, but he replied: “I am resolute in my faith and Christianity and have no wish to recant.”

The panel of five judges will decide within a week whether to confirm his execution for apostasy, Mohammed Ali Dadkhah, his lawyer, told The Times.

William Hague said he “deplored” Pastor Nadarkhani’s plight, and a senior Foreign and Commonwealth Office diplomat telephoned the Iranian chargé d’affaires in London to protest.

“This demonstrates the Iranian regime’s continued unwillingness to abide by its constitutional and international obligations to respect religious freedom,” Mr Hague said. “I pay tribute to the courage shown by Pastor Nadarkhani, who has no case to answer, and call on the Iranian authorities to overturn his sentence.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, broke his silence to express “deep concern” at the sentence faced by Pastor Nadarkhani, and at the persecution of religious minorities in Iran generally.

Sources said that Christian clerics and advisers had been working hard behind the scenes to save the pastor’s life, but had sought to avoid “megaphone diplomacy” in case it did more harm than good.

The US Department of State has also condemned the Iranian judiciary for demanding that Pastor Nadarkhani renounce his faith or face execution.

“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,” it said.

Pastor Nadarkhani, a member of the Protestant evangelical Church of Iran and the father of two young boys, held services in underground “home churches” in Rasht, a provincial town about 150 miles northwest of Tehran.

In 2009, he challenged the regime’s insistence that all schools should teach Islam. He was arrested in October that year and has been imprisoned in Rasht ever since. He was sentenced to death for apostasy by a court in Rasht last year.

The Supreme Court of Iran upheld the sentence last month, but with two provisos — it asked the court in Rasht to check that he had been a practising Muslim at 15, the age of maturity, and to give him three chances to recant.

Pastor Nadarkhani denied ever having been a Muslim, but the prosecution argued successfully that he was of “Islamic ancestry”. However, he refused to renounce his faith at three hearings this week.

At yesterday’s closed session, Mr Dadkhah argued that the Iranian constitution permitted freedom of worship, that the penal code did not identify apostasy as a crime and that Iran had signed international conventions banning religious persecution.

Mr Nadarkhani’s conviction appeared to be based on fatwas issued by Ayatollahs Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei, Iran’s past and present supreme leaders, but other senior Ayatollahs have challenged the ruling.

Mr Dadkhah said he was “95 per cent” confident that “reason will prevail” and his client would escape execution, but acknowledged that the five judges — two of them clerics — warned that they would have to take “specific actions” if Pastor Nadarkhani did not renounce his faith.

The pastor supporters in the West are far less confident that he will avoid the fate of the Reverend Hossein Soodmand, the last Christian to be hanged for abandoning Islam, 21 years ago.

Andrew Johnston, advocacy director at Christian Solidarity Worldwide, said: “[We call] on international actors to take up Pastor Nadarkhani’s case with the Iranian authorities without delay. His life is in the balance.”

go to Times paywall



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