Dying For Religious Freedom: Yousef Nadarkhani

The Iranian government has not executed anyone on charges of apostasy since 1990, when Assemblies of God Pastor Hossein Soodmand was sentenced and then hanged by a Sharia court. Twenty-one years later, another Christian pastor may be the next victim of the courts. Western nations are beginning to take note, but the media is not—and, thanks in part to this ignorance, it may be too late to help the next victim of Iran’s continued flouting of international law.

Yousef Nadarkhani was arrested in 2009 when he publically opposed an illegal Iranian practice that required children of all faiths to receive Islamic instruction. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Iran signed in 1976, both supports Nadarkhani’s objections and forbids just the sort of persecution he has suffered.   Article 18 states,

Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

Of course, Iran has a long history of similar international infractions, and Nadarkhani will hardly be the last man targeted. Many have noted a rise in persecution not only of Christians, but also of Iran’s Baha’i and Suffi communities. Some believe this may indicate a rift within Iran’s leadership:

Some sources told Compass the comments of Islamic leaders may indicate a power struggle between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This bodes ill for Christians and minorities in general, they said.

“When there is conflict in the government and division, then all the minorities will have a hard time,” said another Christian Iranian who requested anonymity.

Yousef Nadarkhani is still alive, but he may not be so for long; rumors last week of an annulment of his sentence have since been refuted by Iranian Christians on the ground.

Last week both Canada and the U.S. responded to Nadarkhani’s plight with a call for Iran to “uphold its international commitments” to its citizens. Some believe the dramatic uptick in public persecution may backfire on the Iranian leadership:

“The Iranian public basically doesn’t trust the government anymore,” Ghaffari said, “and they don’t trust the Muslim clergy anymore, because they have seen a lot of double standards and hypocrisy.”

Converts in smaller communities still risk persecution from their own families, but tolerance is growing in urban areas and among the younger generation. “In fact,” said Dibaj, “in places like Tehran and more educated communities, if you say, ‘I have become a Christian,’ they will respect you because of your courage and your independent thinking.”

If anything, government persecution has made Christianity much more attractive, said Yegh-nazar. “When government officials are on television telling people not to read the Scriptures, that generates more interest in the Scriptures.”

Let’s hope this is true. Martyrs are powerful figures, as the Arab Spring has so poignantly illustrated. If Yousef Nadarkhani is executed, a sufficiently outraged public might have a chance to spark such a “backfire” and help ensure that his martyrdom was not in vain.

Unfortunately, as Mollie Hemingway points out this morning at the Get Religion blog, the public has largely ignored this story, despite its having been addressed by the State Department:

The Christian and human rights press is all over it. But the only mainstream treatment I saw was from Agence France Press.

Here’s their headline:

Iran ‘annuls death term’ for Christian pastor

So if a court told someone who was facing certain death that he only faced certain death if he refused to recant his faith, would you say that’s an “annulment” of the death sentence? I wouldn’t.

Things don’t look good for Pastor Nadarkhani.

image via Anglicans Ablaze






East Meets West: Sharia Law Sanctioned in UK

Upon hearing about the government sanctioning Sharia law in the United Kingdom, I was immediately concerned that western law was being subverted in an ally country with whom we share a unique history. There are two levels on which there might possibly be concerns. The first possible concern arises when one compares Sharia law to a traditional, Western sense of justice. The second possible concern arises when this event is viewed from a historical perspective. Upon thinking through these possible concerns, I believe that the first one raises interesting questions that Christians especially ought to consider and the second may actually be troubling.

In his speech on the rise of Islam in the United Kingdom and the coming sanctioning of Sharia law, Archbishop Rowan Williams best draws out the nature of the first concern.  Williams said,

And what most people think they know of sharia is that it is repressive towards women and wedded to archaic and brutal physical punishments; just a few days ago, it was reported that a ‘forced marriage’ involving a young woman with learning difficulties had been ‘sanctioned under sharia law’ – the kind of story that, in its assumption that we all ‘really’ know what is involved in the practice of sharia, powerfully reinforces the image of – at best- a pre-modern system in which human rights have no role.

Off-the-hip criticisms of sharia law, especially in the media, will tend to focus around the easiest elements to critique.  Namely, criticism will focus on the areas where sharia law tends to most barbarically separate from traditional, Western ideas of justice.  The contrast between sharia law and Western law is especially easy to notice when one compares the rights of women within the two systems.   In an election year where Hillary Clinton was almost a presidential nominee for one ticket and Sarah Palin is the Vice-Presidential nominee for another, it seems pitiful that there is still a legal and cultural tradition where a man can divorce his wife via text message while the wife cannot divorce her husband save for impotence or his extended absence. 

Nonetheless, while we believe in the rights of women we simultaneously highly value cultures, especially minority cultures, and their traditions.   We value liberty and the freedoms of those with religious beliefs.  We desire to liberate people from oppressive systems, but we simultaneously believe that we liberate people from oppressive systems so that they may live freely according to their beliefs so long as they are not openly subversive to the state.  At the heart of these beliefs is an interesting tension between free expression and how one chooses to express himself/herself freely.  At the center of the tension are questions about the nature of law which are especially important for Christians to consider.

Continue reading East Meets West: Sharia Law Sanctioned in UK