Skip to main content

Christian Pastor Faces Death Sentence in Iran

Paul Marshall

Iranian Pastor Youssef Nadarkhani, who faces the death sentence for apostasy, has for the third time refused to renounce his Christian faith, even though it could mean his execution.

The 27th branch of the Supreme Court had instructed the 11th branch of the Gilan Provincial Court to review Nadarkhani’s case, specifically whether he had been a Muslim before becoming a Christian. The Provincial Court has concluded that he had been a Muslim, and the Supreme Court’s ruling is that if this is the case he should be killed unless he recants his Christian faith.

Nadarkhani’s situation is the most dire, but he is one amongst hundreds of cases of religious repression in Iran. Among many other arrests, Behnam Irani, a member of Nadarkhani’s church, has been detained in Karaj since May 31 and five others have begun serving one-year sentences in Shiraz.

Even Nadarkhani’s defense lawyer Mohammed Ali Dadkhah was sentenced in July to nine years imprisonment for ‘actions and propaganda against the Islamic regime.’

Currently Iran is outdoing itself in repression.

In the aftermath of its violent attacks on the democratic opposition following the 2009 elections, the regime has been increasing arrests not only of political opponents but of the religiously differing.

Jamsheed Chosky, an expert of Iran’s Zoroastrians, reports that Ayatollah Ahmed Jannati, Chairman of the Council of Guardians and advisor to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has denounced non-Muslims as ‘animals who roam the Earth and engage in corruption.’

Arrests of other Christians have accelerated and the regime is demonizing them as conspirators, ‘parasites’ and ‘like the Taliban.’ It has also seized 6500 bibles. In 2009, one leader reported that ‘there are more arrests, of Christians as well as Baha’i, in the last several months… [than] maybe the whole 30 years before.’

As is becoming common in the region, the latest wave of repression began at Christmas.

The government continues to target Baha’is. In 2008 it arrested seven Baha’i leaders and charged them with, inter alia, ‘insulting religious sanctities’ and ‘propaganda against the state.’ When Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi agreed to defend them, she was attacked in the government-controlled media and denied access to her clients’ files. In March 2011, the seven were told without explanation that, despite an appeals courts lowering their sentences, they would serve the original term of 20 years. Since the regime bars Baha’is from higher education, and much else, they have formed a private Baha’i Institute for Higher Education. On May 22, authorities raided 39 homes of the institute’s administrators, staff and students. At least seven are still detained. On September 10, a senior lawyer for the detainees, Abdolfattah Soltani, was himself arrested.

Soltani co-founded the Defenders of Human Rights Center along with four other lawyers including Ebadi. The Center was shut down by police in December 2008. Zoroastrians are also under increasing pressure. Ayatollah Khomeini had a particular hatred of Zoroastrians because of their links to Persian history and nationalism. He accused the Shah of wanting ‘to revive Zoroastrianism.’

Current Supreme leader Khamenei continues this animus and has referred to them as kaffers, meaning infidels, a term usually reserved for Iran’s non-recognized religious groups.

On August 2, Mohhsen Sadeghipour began serving a sentence of 4.5 years in prison, 74 lashes, and a fine for ‘anti-regime propaganda by propaganda for the Zoroastrian faith and organizing ancient ceremonies.’

Sadeghipour’s brother in law, Pouria Shahpari, was arrested on August 22 for blasphemy, also because of ‘propaganda for Zoroastrianism.’ Pending appeal, he was sentenced to 2.5 years and 74 lashes. Sadeghipour and Shahpari were punished simply for defending and promoting their faith.

Of course, the regime also persecutes Muslims. After Khamenei gave a speech in Qom denouncing ‘false mysticism’ and the dangers of religious minorities, including Sufis, it has arrested members of the Gonabadi dervish community.

Amnesty International reports that, on September 3, members of the Basij militia gathered in Kavar armed with batons and chanting anti-dervish slogans, and set fire to stores displaying photos of dervish leaders. Subsequently, at least six people were shot and hospitalized. About 60 were arrested. The regime also followed its increasing practice of arresting lawyers who defend minorities. Three attorneys who have defended dervishes, Amir Eslami, Afshin Karampour, and Omid Behruz have been arrested this month.

Iran’s religious repression is not some minor quirk. As Nina Shea and I recount in our forthcoming book Silenced, it is at the heart of the regime’s ideology.

Dissidents and dissenters are charged with ‘friendship with the enemies of God’, ‘hostility towards friends of God’, ‘fighting against God’, ‘obstructing the way of God and the way towards happiness for all the disinherited people in the world’, ‘dissension from religious dogma’, ‘insulting the Prophet’, ‘insulting Islam’, ‘propagation of spiritual liberalism’, ‘promoting pluralism’, ‘calling into question the Islamic foundations of the Republic’, and our favorite, ‘creating anxiety in the minds of … Iranian officials’.

Like all ideologies, it can rebound on its creators. Ahmadinejad has himself recently been accused of ‘witchcraft’, ‘experimenting with exorcism’ and ‘communicating with genies’. Mullahs have denounced his administration as containing ‘deviants, devils and evil spirits’. The regime’s greatest weakness may be its religious one.

Related Articles

Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes

Paul Marshall

Many Islamic and Muslim-majority nations impose brutal punishments for apostasy and blasphemy. Reports of Muslims and non-Muslims being sentenced to y...

Watch Now

For Afghanistan Election, After Kerry Deal Comes the Hard Part

Richard Weitz

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy in Kabul this weekend paved the way to resolving Afghanistan’s current election crisis, whi...

Continue Reading

The Continued Plight of Egypt's Copts

Samuel Tadros

For Egypt's Copts, the military's removal of President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood from power was nothing short of a miracle. After two and a hal...

Continue Reading