Iran has issued what could be the final execution order for Youcef Nadarkhani, the Christian pastor who was found guilty of renouncing Islam.
Nadarkhani has been waiting in limbo for this verdict for months. After turning down four separate chances to convert to Islam to save his life, Iranian officials delayed their sentencing, leaving the pastor to await his fate inside a cell in Iran’s Gilan province. But now, Nadarkhani could be executed within days.
“They are threatening to execute a pastor who is, in my opinion, totally innocent,” said U.S. Representative Joseph Pitts (R. – PA), who is sponsoring a congressional resolution to call for Nadarkhani’s freedom.
“He’s facing the threat of execution on false charges just because of his religious belief. He’s willing to face the hangman’s noose over this.”
On Monday, the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), an international Christian and human rights organization, discovered that Nadarkhani’s “life is in imminent danger” and that “the situation has not been this dire” since the organization first learned of his arrest. While that first report did not go into specifics, the organization believes it has confirmed the execution order and that, at least as of Tuesday, Nadarkhani was still alive.
“Iran’s legal system is not like any legal system in the world. [The order] is still being kept secret. Even his legal team might not find out about the execution until the body is delivered to the family,” said Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the ACLJ.
Crisis of Faith
The pastor, who once led a small congregation of about 400 worshipers in the northwest part of the country, was originally arrested in 2009 for apostasy, the crime of abandoning one’s faith. Although apostasy is not a crime under Iran’s official legal code, it is punishable by death according to Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwas and religious decrees, thereby bringing Nadarkhani’s trial through Iran’s special Revolutionary Court.
Under Iranian law, anyone born to Muslim parents is a Muslim. Nadarkhani claimed in his defense that he never accepted the Islamic faith and that he became a Christian before 15, the age of religious maturity in Iran. And while Christianity is a protected religion under Iran’s constitution, Nadarkhani was also charged with converting other Muslims to Christianity through his evangelism, which is a crime.
A year after his arrest Nadarkhani, was “convicted of turning his back on Islam, the greatest religion of the prophesy of Mohammad, at the age of 19,” according to a court ruling from December, 2010. That’s when the first death sentence was handed out. After many attempts to get the pastor to repent, the case eventually made it to the Supreme Court and then to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is still the final judge.
If the order goes through, it will be the first time that anyone has been officially hanged for apostasy in Iran in over 20 years.
(However, the legal system allows Iran to publish charges after a criminal has been executed, meaning that the court can mask an apostasy execution after the fact by changing the conviction. Iran has already made claims that Nadarkhani was arrested for “security-related crimes” like Zionism and spying — claims which court documents refuted but were made nonetheless.)
Along with Pitts, who is co-sponsoring the bill with Rep. Keith Ellison (D. – Minn), the White House, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the European Union have also condemned Iran for breaking with the Universal Declaration of Human rights, of which Iran is a signatory.
But these official censures may be too little too late. Iran’s execution orders are kept private, so the details are unclear and the execution order could be carried out at any time.
In Iran, those sentenced to death generally don’t wait long for execution. Alireza Molla-Soltani, a teenager convicted of the murder of “Iran’s strongest man,” was sentenced to death on Aug. 20, 2011, denied appeal on Sept. 11, and then hanged on Sept. 21. Thus, Nadarkhani could be hanged in a matter of days.
“There are grave concerns that the death sentence could be carried out at any time without prior notification and that the authorities will merely announce it later, a practice that is not uncommon in Iran,” activist group Christian Solidarity Worldwide stated.
If the execution is held publicly, it will have to be approved by Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani. But if it’s done in private, which most hangings in Iran are, it may not be known about until days or weeks after it occurs, the ACLJ points out.
Still, Pitts and Sekulow believe that if enough international attention on the issue is brought quickly to the fore, the pressure will be enough change the minds of Iranian leadership, at least for the time being.
“It’s not there’s no hope, because Iran knows it’s being watched,” said Sekulow. “The only hope for [Nadarkhani] right now is that one of the ayatollahs steps in.” [Because of the secrecy surrounding the case,] “we won’t know who stepped in or how, but it will still be a victory.”
“I hope people will pray for him and for the Iranian authorities and that the right thing will be done. It’s the only thing that some of us can do,” said Pitts.