The former pastor of a network of Christian house churches in Iran has been told to exchange his faith for his life, according to news reports and human rights groups.
"We are dismayed over reports that the Iranian courts are requiring Youcef Nadarkhani to recant his Christian faith or face the death penalty for apostasy," wrote U.S. Department of State Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland in a recent press statement.
Mr. Nadarkhani was arrested in his home city of Rasht on October 13, 2009 while attempting to register his church after protesting compulsory Islamic religious instruction in Iranian public schools. Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a human rights group, reports that he was originally charged with protesting, however, the charges against the 32-year-old convert to Christianity were later changed to apostasy and evangelizing Muslims.
The pastor was verbally sentenced to death in September 2010. On November 13, 2010, he received the same sentence in writing. Noted human rights lawyer Mohammad Ali Dadkhah appealed the decision to Iran's Supreme Court. Mr. Dadkhah told AFP news agency July 3rd that the Supreme Court had "annulled" the death sentence and sent the case back to a lower court in Nadarkhani's hometown to determine if Nadarkhani had been Muslim prior to his conversion to Christianity, but had also asked Nadarkhani to repent. That same day, however, a court in Tehran sentenced Mr. Dadkhah to nine years in jail and a 10-year ban on practicing law or teaching at university for "actions and propaganda against the Islamic regime".
The death sentence for the charge of apostasy is not codified in Iranian law. If carried out, it would be the first execution for apostasy in Iran since 1990.
"He is just one of thousands who face persecution for their religious beliefs in Iran, including the seven leaders of the Baha’i community whose imprisonment was increased to 20 years for practicing their faith and hundreds of Sufis who have been flogged in public because of their beliefs," wrote Ms. Nuland.
"We join the international community in continuing to call on the Iranian government to respect the fundamental rights of all its citizens and uphold its international commitments to protect them."