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Iran frees pastor in surprise move

14 September 2012


Long-held: Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani (centre), seen after his release from prison in September, after two years' confinement on a death sentence on charges of apostasy 

Long-held: Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani (centre), seen after his release from prison in September, after two years' confinement on a death sentence on c...

THE Iranian pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, who faced the death penalty for refusing to recant his Christian faith ( News, 7 October 2011), was released unexpectedly from prison last Saturday.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) issued a statement on Saturday morning saying that it had been informed by "reliable sources" that Mr Nadarkhani had been released and was at home with his family. Pictures appeared online shortly afterwards, showing the pastor emerging from prison in the city of Rasht, in north Iran, and hugging his wife and children.

Mr Nadarkhani, a member of the Protestant Evangelical Church of Iran, was sentenced to death in 2010 after being convicted of apostasy. Iranian criminal law does not demand that apostasy is punishable by death, but a constitutional loophole allowed judges to justify the sentence with reference to sharia and "authoritative fatwas", CSW said.

Mr Nadarkhani had been called to appear in the Revolutionary Court of Second Instance, in Rasht, on Saturday, but did not know if any new charges would be brought against him. Human-rights campaigners expressed concern that he could face new charges of blasphemy or of being a risk to national security.

When Mr Nadarkhani appeared in court, he was acquitted of apostasy, but found guilty of the charge of evangelising Muslims. The latter charge carried a sentence of three years, which he had already served, and he was therefore released.

Speaking on Monday, CSW's team leader for Africa and the Middle East, Dr Khataza Gondwe, said that Mr Nadarkhani's release by the court had come as a "surprise". She said: "The fact that this release occurred at a time when there was a massive call to prayer is not a coincidence."

The huge amount of publicity that the case had generated around the world could have been a factor in the court's deciding to release Mr Nadarkhani, Dr Gondwe said. Countries with which Iran is on friendly terms - particularly in Latin America and Africa - had commented on the case. Last week, the Uruguayan Senate adopted a resolution calling for the suspension of Mr Nadarkhani's death sentence.

Dr Gondwe said that Christians should pray for Mr Nadarkhani's safety. Another Iranian Christian pastor, Mehdi Dibaj, who was sentenced to death for apostasy in 1993, was assassinated six months after his release in January 1994.

The chief executive of CSW, Mervyn Thomas, said last Saturday: "We commend the Iranian judiciary for this step, which is a triumph for justice and the rule of law. While we rejoice . . . 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."

The UK director of Release International, Colin King, said on Monday that Mr Nadarkhani's release showed "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. . . While other believers remain behind bars in Iran, there is still much to campaign for."

The Canon Treasurer of St Paul's Cathedral, the Revd Mark Oakley, said on Monday: "It is four months since we held a special service to pray for Yousef in the cathedral. We are all delighted here to hear that he has been released and is now back home with his family."


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