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Religious freedom and a pastor in Iran

Posted: October 10, 2011 - 11:01pm

The world recognized an international symbol of the hunger for political freedom in the summer of 2009 when a young Iranian woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, was fatally shot during the Tehran uprising. Now, Iran’s persecution of Yousef Nadarkhani, a young pastor sentenced to death for his Christian faith, is a chilling reminder that much of the world also yearns for religious liberty.

Iranian authorities arrested Nadarkhani in his home town of Rasht on Oct. 13, 2009. Nadarkhani, in his early 30s and married with two small children, is the pastor of a house church. His offense? Questioning the Islamic teaching his children received in school and asserting the right of parents to bring up their children in their own religious beliefs.

We know this much from an account by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Since Nadarkhani’s arrest, though, his alleged crimes have escalated from unlawful protesting to unlawful “apostasy” for converting from Islam to Christianity. The latter judgment was handed down in November 2010 and, after Nadarkhani appealed, reinforced by a recent verdict of the Iranian Supreme Court. In recent days, charges veered wildly from rumors of rape to spying for Israel. Then, the Iranian government denied having charged the pastor at all.

The regime’s increasingly erratic action in the case comes amid international protest at the highest levels. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States is “deeply concerned” about the religious persecution perpetuated by the “hypocritical” Iranian regime and will “continue to call for a government that respects the human rights and freedom of all those living in Iran.” The White House said Nadarkhani “has done nothing more than maintain his devout faith, which is a universal right for all people” and called upon Iranian authorities to release him. Tens of thousands have signed petitions in support of the pastor.

The dramatic international outcry against the looming execution of Nadarkhani is a welcome sign of widespread commitment to religious liberty. But sadly, he is by no means alone in facing religious persecution — whether in Iran or in countries around the globe.

Because these individuals often suffer and die for their faith unknown to the rest of the world, the Iranian regime’s persecution of Nadarkhani is a witness we should heed on their behalf. Worldwide persecution of religious minorities has increased markedly in recent years. Harassment of believers jumped in 23 countries between 2006 and 2009, according to a recent report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

In two-thirds of the world’s 198 countries, incidents came to light of government or social harassment against Christians in particular. Increasing persecution of Christians in the Middle East, and the resulting exodus of the faithful, has led the Catholic archbishop of Baghdad and other leaders to wonder whether brutal religious oppression could extinguish Christianity in the region altogether.

The Iranian regime seems determined to do just that. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, USCIRF notes, “has called for an end to the development of Christianity in Iran.” An estimated 300,000 of Iran’s 67 million people are Christians, about 10,000 of them Protestants.

Since 1999, Iran has been listed by the U.S. State Department as a country of particular concern because of its disregard for religious freedom. Although the Iranian constitution lists Christianity as a “protected religion” that is due respect, Christians — along with other religious minorities — experience quite the opposite. Religious minorities in Iran report “government imprisonment, harassment, intimidation and discrimination based on their religious beliefs,” according to State’s International Religious Freedom Report, released in September. Since June 2010, “more than 250 Christians have been arbitrarily arrested,” USCIRF adds.

Iran does not recognize the freedom to change religion, despite having assented in 1948 to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” Nadarkhani’s conviction for “apostasy” — although unsubstantiated — is a blatant disregard of this universal freedom.

Nor does Iran permit non-Muslims to share their faith with Muslims.

Christian congregations must submit their membership lists to the government. They also must agree not to admit Muslims to their services.

Religious freedom is the birthright of every man and woman. Yet more than 60 years after nations around the world affirmed this truth, too few governments around the world acknowledge it. And far too many people never have enjoyed it.

The outcry on behalf of Yousef Nadarkhani should increase our vigilance on behalf of all those persecuted for their faith.

• Marshall is director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation and author of “Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Single Life in the Twenty-First Century.”

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