Under international pressure, Iran shifts charges against Christian pastor

By Michelle Bauman

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Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani in prison. Credit: ACLJ.

Iran has acknowledged to the international community that an imprisoned Christian pastor has been charged with faith-related crimes rather than rape and extortion, as the regime had previously claimed.

Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice, attributed this acknowledgment to increased media coverage as well as the involvement of other nations, especially Brazil, which has a key relationship with Iran.

Sekulow told EWTN News on March 14 that the Iranian regime is under “so much pressure that they can’t deny” the religious nature of the charges any longer.

Christian pastor Yousef Nadarkhani has been jailed in the country since 2009, when he was arrested after complaining to local authorities about his son being forced to read the Quran at school. He was found guilty of abandoning Islam, the faith of his ancestors, and ordered to recant or die. But despite repeated threats, he refused to renounce his Christian faith.

When questioned about the situation several months ago, Iranian authorities insisted that Nadarkhani had been charged with rape and extortion. The regime repeated this claim in the months that followed.

At a March 12 meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, the Special Rapporteur for human rights in Iran drew attention to human rights abuses in the country and called for Nadarkhani’s release.

In his response, Iranian representative Mohammad Javad Larijani avoided mentioning the charges of rape and extortion that the regime had previously claimed. Instead, he brought three new allegations against the pastor.

He said that Nadarkhani had been charged with proselytizing minors without the consent of their parents and converting his home into a church without permission from the regime. Sekulow explained that these charges were likely intended to draw the sympathy of other countries in the region that may not have strong relations with Iran but have similar laws on their books.

The Iranian representative added in his remarks to the U.N. council that Nadarkhani had “offended Islam” with his Christian preaching.

Sekulow said that despite its claim of religious freedom, the Iranian regime considers it a crime to present Jesus as the only way to salvation.

However, he said that the new charges mark a significant shift in Iranian rhetoric, as the regime is “finally admitting that this is all about religion.”

Recent months have seen an increase in international pressure on Iran, as more and more countries have called on the regime to release Nadarkhani.

In late February, the American Center for Law and Justice received word from its contacts in Iran that an execution order for the pastor may have been ordered.

In the weeks that followed, the group worked to draw international attention to Nadarkhani’s plight.

Among the countries where efforts to raise awareness were focused was Brazil, which has “key” diplomatic and economic relationships with Iran, Sekulow explained. 

Christianity still plays an important role in Brazilian life and culture, and Brazilian officials immediately called for Nadarkhani’s release when they learned of the situation.

“That’s changed the game,” Sekulow said.

He explained that Iran could not continue to lie to a country with which it has such an important relationship.

This was particularly true, he added, because the international community had already seen the legal documents pertaining to the case, including the original court verdict that had listed apostasy as the sole charge for execution.

Iran “couldn’t back away anymore,” he explained.

Sekulow said that the media – particularly social networking sites – played a large role in publicizing Nadarkhani’s plight.

The religious media in America initially picked up on the story, which was then passed to the mainstream U.S. media, and then spread to Europe and eventually to important Iranian partners such as Brazil.

“Now you’ve got countries asking to go visit him,” he said, adding that it has been confirmed that the pastor was still alive as of March 15. 

Sekulow stressed the need for continued pressure on the Iranian regime, which has a “history of testing” how far it can go with the international community and has been known to carry out secret executions.

A Twitter initiative operated by the American Center for Law and Justice currently reaches more than 1 million people in English, raising awareness about Nadarkhani’s situation.

Sekulow said a Portuguese version will soon be introduced to accommodate Brazilians who wish to help in the efforts to save the pastor.

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