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In Iran, a Christian pastor faces death sentence for apostasy
An international human rights group in Iran called recently for the release from prison of a Christian pastor who was sentenced to death for allegedly changing his religion.
The 11th Circuit Criminal Court of Appeals of Gilan Province, Iran upheld a death sentence on Youcef Nadarkhani, 32, on the charge of apostasy, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran told CNN.
The ICC said another Christian pastor, Behrouz Sadegh-Khanjani, 35, faces a similar charge in an unrelated case. There is fear that he may also be sentenced to death, Iranian.com said.
Iran’s Islamic Penal Code does not state that apostasy is a crime, Iranian.com said. Furthermore, two articles in the Iran constitution clearly defend the rights of Christians, CNN reported.
Nadarkhani’s lawyer filed an objection before Iran’s Supreme Court, citing these two constitutional articles, one of which allows Christians “the right to freely worship and form religious societies,” the other “obligates the Iranian government to uphold the equality and human rights of Christians,” CNN reported.
Never were Muslims
Both Christian pastors deny committing apostasy (renouncing one’s religion). Both say they were never Muslims. CNN reports Nadarkhani said he was forced by his interrogators to sign a statement admitting he committed apostasy.
Although born to Muslim parents, Nadarkhani never accepted any religion before he became a Christian at the age of 19. CNN said Nadarkhani’s interrogators lied to him, saying that at age 15, the child of Muslims automatically becomes a Muslim if he does not accept any other religion.
Khanjani, who is also charged with apostasy, is the son of Christians. His Christian mother is an immigrant from the Congo, and his father converted to Christianity before Khanjani was born, CNN said.
Despite existing constitutional rights, the presiding judge in Nadarkhani’s case based his ruling on the writings of Iranian religious scholars, Iranian.com said. There is a constitutional provision which instructs judges “to consult sources when there is no codified-law that addresses a matter,” CNN reported.
The penal code also allows “judges to draw upon their personal knowledge when adjudicating cases,” CNN said.
Mahmoud Taravatrooy, lawyer for Khanjani, consulted top clerics regarding apostasy under Islam. He told CNN that four Ayatollahs, one of them the late Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, said that converting from Islam to an Abrahamic religion, including Christianity, is not apostasy, CNN said.
North to South
Nadarkhani is with the Church of Iran ministry and is pastor some 400 churchgoers in Rasht, a city in the north, Iranian.com said. Khanjani comes from Shiraz, a city in the south, CNN reported.
However, the charges of apostasy against both pastors may be seen as part of a larger trend in persecuting Christians, Firouz Sadegh-Khanjani, brother of Behrouz, told CNN.
Aaron Rhodes, spokesman for ICHR, told Iranian.com, “It is the low point of any judicial system to sentence a person to death outside of its own legal framework. To execute someone based on the religion they choose to practice or not practice is the ultimate form of religious discrimination.”