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Iran: 'there are still Christians behind bars' say campaigners

Suffering Church campaigners are calling for continued pressure on Iran after the release of Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani ...

Release International calls for continued pressure on Iran after the release of Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who had been sentenced to death for apostasy.

Pastor Nadarkhani was set free on Saturday after an Iranian court dropped the charge of apostasy – leaving Islam – but upheld a charge of evangelising Muslims.

The court sentenced him to three years, but promptly released him because he had already served the time. Pastor Nadarkhani was jailed in 2009 after complaining that his children were being required to learn the Koran in school.

"Release is delighted Pastor Nadarkhani has been set free," says Release UK director Colin King. "We congratulate Iran for accepting that the death penalty for apostasy is a step too far. After repeatedly threatening to take this man’s life, the courts have now done the right thing in letting him go.

"This decision reveals again the power of prayer and the effectiveness of active campaigning. But we must still recognise that a man has been sentenced to three years simply for sharing his faith. The Iranian government is increasingly hostile towards Christians, and while other believers remain behind bars in Iran there is still much to campaign for."

There was concern last week that Pastor Nadarkhani could face new charges of committing ‘security-related’ crimes, perhaps as a way of deflecting attention from the religious persecution aspect of the case.

Another Christian leader jailed on similar charges is 41-year-old Pastor Behnam Irani, who was arrested while leading a Bible study group. Pastor Irani, who is married with two young children, has been repeatedly beaten in jail and now has difficulty walking and seeing.

He was convicted of ‘crimes against national security’ in January 2011 and was given a six-year sentence. A Release Facebook campaign ('Release Behnam Irani') encourages people to email the head of Iran’s judiciary direct and appeal for clemency. The page includes a short YouTube clip of Pastor Iran’s arrest.

Through its international network of missions Release International serves persecuted Christians in 30 countries by supporting pastors and Christian prisoners and their families; supplying Christian literature and Bibles, and working for justice.

has been informed that Yousef Nadarkhani, the Church of Iran pastor sentenced to death for apostasy, has been released and is at home with his family.

According to reliable sources, during court proceedings that took place on Saturday (8 September), Pastor Nadarkhani was acquitted of apostasy, but found guilty of evangelizing Muslims. He was sentenced to three years' imprisonment for the latter charge, but released because he had already served this time.

Pastor Nadarkhani was arrested in his home city of Rasht in 2009 soon after questioning the Muslim monopoly of religious instruction for children, which he felt was unconstitutional. He was sentenced to death for apostasy in 2010, a decision that was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2011. 

Although the Iranian penal code did not specify death for apostasy, a constitutional loophole allowed judges to refer to Shari’a law and authoritative fatwas to justify such a sentence. Today the pastor had been expected to face new charges for unspecified crimes, but was instead released.

CSW’s Chief Executive, Mervyn Thomas said: "CSW is delighted to learn of Pastor Nadarkhani’s release after a long incarceration. We commend the Iranian judiciary for this step, which is a triumph for justice and the rule of law.

"While we rejoice at this wonderful news, we do not forget hundreds of others who are harassed or unjustly detained on account of their faith, and CSW is committed to continue campaigning until all of Iran’s religious minorities are able to enjoy religious freedom as guaranteed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is party.”

For a CSW religious freedom briefing on Iran, please visit http://dynamic.csw.org.uk/article.asp?t=report&id=164
 

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