Iranian Pastor Released After Three Years On Death Row

Wolff Bachner

After finally being released from prison in Iran, Christian Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani was greeted by his wife Tina and his ecstatic family on Saturday, September 8, 2012. Due to the tight security and censorship by the Iranian authorities, news of the Pastor's release was not confirmed by Western sources until Monday. Nadarkhani was freed by the courts after spending more than three years on death row for the crime of Apostasy. The long suffering Pastor had refused to recant his Christian faith and convert to Islam after being sentenced to death by a regional Iranian court in 2010.

The court vacated his sentence of death for Apostasy and found him guilty of the crime of "Evangelizing Muslims." The lesser charge carries a penalty of three years in prison, and Nadarkhani was freed with a sentence of time served. The court did not comment on the possibility of Nadarkhani being charged with another crime at a later date, which is a possibility that his supporters fear.

Prior to his latest court appearance, there had been threats by Iranian officials to indict Nadarkhani on new charges of sedition and plotting against the state. The Iranian government recently claimed that case against the pastor was not about his religious conversion. Instead, they accused him of spying for the West and even suggested he was the owner of a house of prostitution.

Pastor Nadarkhani's release came rather unexpectedly during a six hour court appearance last Friday to consider his case. Nadarkhani, now 34, was born to Iranian Muslim parents, but he converted to Christianity as a teenager. Under Iranian law, an adult who leaves Islam is an Apostate and may be sentenced to death by stoning or hanging. Nadarkhani's legal defense was based on the fact that he converted before he reached adulthood and was therefore not an Apostate.

The first word of the Pastor's release was heard over the weekend by The American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative Christian group founded by Pat Robertson. Jordan Sekulow, executive director of ACLJ, broke the good news saying:

"Our sources in Iran reported that Pastor Youcef was acquitted of apostasy and released from prison. After languishing in prison for almost three years, he has been reunited with his family."

While his supporters rejoice over the fact that Nadarkhani is finally a free man after three terrifying years, many of which were spent in solitary confinement, the situation for Iranian Christians continues to deteriorate. Recent reports from the Christian news organization, Mohabat News, indicate that officials in northwestern Iran seized and publicly burned 6,500 Bibles. A spokesman for the regional administration accused non-Muslims of uniting to defy the authority of Islam. The government-connected cleric, Ayatollah Hadi Jahangosha, gave a warning against “the spread of Christianity among our youth" in which he complained, "burgeoning satellite programming, literature, and religious articles are promoting the Western tradition." The Ayatollah said:

“Everyone in society should feel responsibility in this matter and play his or her role in spreading of pure Islam and fight false and distorted cultures.”