For the first time in 20 years, the Islamic Republic of Iran has issued a formal death sentence for a Christian. Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, leader of the Church of Iran denomination in Rasht, was arrested in October 2009 while seeking to register his church. He has been on death row since being found guilty of apostasy, conversion from Islam, in September 2010.
Pastor Nadarkhani’s appeal came to a conclusion on Wednesday, September 28. Iran's Supreme Court had refused to overturn his death sentence, referring his case back to local judges in Rasht to decide whether Nadarkhani had been a practising Muslim before converting to Christianity, something which Nadarkhani denied. Judges in Rasht ruled that although Nadarkhani had not been a practising Muslim, his Islamic heritage made him guilty of apostasy.
Although apostasy does not carry a formal death penalty under Iran’s penal code, judges in Rasht were able to use the supremacy of Islamic jurisprudence in Iran’s constitution to sue for the death sentence based on religious fatwas, or Islamic rulings, by leading Ayatollahs.
If he is executed, Pastor Nadarkhani will leave behind a wife and two small children. His lawyer awaits the written verdict of his death sentence. This process could take a week, but commentators inside Iran suggest that it could be much shorter or that he may be executed without formal notice. Reports that Mr Nadarkhani’s lawyer, a prominent human rights activist who faces jail for his work, has received verbal notice of the annulment of Nadarkhani’s death sentence have been firmly denied inside Iran. It is thought that such rumours may be being propagated by the regime in order to deflect international condemnation.
There have been over 300 arrests of Christians in 35 cities across Iran since June 2010. Detainees are typically held in unsanitary prisons, sometimes in solitary confinement, with evidence of torture and interrogation tactics being used against them on account of their faith. Excessively high bail demands, some as great as $30,000, see title deeds to detainees’ houses being given in return for their liberty. Those inmates whose families cannot meet these demands, such as Pastor Farshid Fathi, who was detained in a brutal crackdown against evangelical Christians over Christmas of last year, remain detained.
The high profile case of Hashem Aghajani in 2002 is an example of how the theocratic dictates of the regime can be used to stifle political debate in addition to religious freedom and demonstrate how apostasy is both a political and religious tool and thus a sentencing risk to all. Aghajani was a history professor at one of Tehran’s universities and a survivor of the Iran-Iraq war with an “impeccable” revolutionary reputation. Aghajani was sentenced to be hanged after he gave a speech in Hamedan during which he called for the reformation of Islam and questioned the role of clerics in Iran’s leadership. His statements were understood to have directly threatened the regime and, by definition, to have demonstrated the renunciation of ‘true’ faith.
Within this subjective sphere of rights, where political and religious allegiance is enmeshed, religious deviance from the status quo is as much of a political statement, as political nonconformity is deemed an act against God. The charge for apostasy, whether framed through a political or a religious lens is the same: a possible death sentence dependent on the whim, character, belief or political context of the decision of a local judge.
It is time for the West to recognise that religious belief is not some sort of additional right less essential than those based on race, ethnicity, political allegiance or gender. Religious faith as much as political belief is based on conviction, not on luxury. Furthermore, in a state like Iran where theocracy governs, freedom of belief is tantamount to freedom of political self-determination.
There must be intervention sooner on behalf of religious detainees and greater awareness of the theological underpinnings and legal uses of apostasy for members of theocratic societies. In addition, there must be greater cohesion to ensure that international covenants such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Iran is a signatory, are upheld.