The U.S. House today joined Twitter users in 198 countries and territories, Donald Trump, and a Brazilian soccer legend as part of a growing international coalition demanding that Iran spare the life of a modern-day Christian martyr who refuses to renounce his faith and embrace Islam.
Youcef Nadarkhani, the father of two small children, was sentenced in 2010 to death by hanging, and now has been imprisoned for more than 871 days in northern Iran — igniting a maelstrom of outrage that has reached more than 960,000 Twitter users around the world and done something that few thought possible in Washington, D.C. — unite Republicans and Democrats in an election year.
“People are working together that probably never thought they would work together because you can put a lot of differences aside versus such a basic right and such an abuse of power,” declared Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice, which launched the Twitter campaign to overturn Nadarkhani’s death sentence on a charge of apostasy.
The ACLJ also heard from more than 180,000 Americans who urged the House to approve today’s resolution condemning Iran for its continued “persecution, imprisonment, and sentencing” of Nadarkhani by a margin of 417-1.
In this case, the apostasy is interpreted as abandoning Islam. The original indictment against Nadarkhani, an evangelical pastor who became a Christian at age 19, also accused him of organizing evangelistic meetings, sharing his faith, trying to convert Muslims to Christianity, running a house church, and rejecting Islamic values.
Iranian officials amended the indictment last fall to include allegations of rape, extortion, and national security, as well as Zionism. Critics viewed the additional charges as Iran’s trumped-up allegations to counter international outrage over the case.
The White House issued a statement on Feb. 23 condemning Iran in the “strongest possible terms,” calling for the pastor’s immediate release, and demanding that Iran set aside the death sentence.
Former Rep. Pete Hoekstra, who once chaired the powerful House Intelligence Committee and now is running for the Senate, told Newsmax that the United States should take an “aggressive and strong stance” to free Nadarkhani and offer him residence in this country if he wants it.
“We ought to make it very, very clear that this family would be welcome in the United States, and they would be welcome today,” Hoekstra told Newsmax in the exclusive interview. “Any president who is willing to apologize for the burning of the Quran ought to be more than willing to speak forcefully for saving the life of a person whose life and whose family is being threatened because of their faith in Jesus Christ.”
Dr. Richard Land, a leading figure in the influential Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), believes that Nadarkhani’s best chance is to focus global attention on Iran’s rejection of fundamental human rights such as religious freedom.
“In a modern, civilized country you don’t kill people that you disagree with about religious matters — and they are very dangerous,” Land said in an exclusive interview with Newsmax.TV. “The only thing that has kept this dear pastor from being executed already is the cold, public light of world opinion being focused on Tehran.”
Land, whom President George W. Bush appointed to serve on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, added that the Obama administration also may be pursuing “private back-channel diplomacy” to win the pastor’s release.
“But I hope that President Obama and the secretary of State, at the highest levels, are making it clear that this is utterly and totally unacceptable and that they are using every diplomatic resource at our disposal to spare this dear Christian brother’s life,” said Land, who is president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC, which is considered to be the largest Protestant body in the United States, with 16 million members.
Soccer icon Ricardo Kaká — the 17th-most-followed person on Twitter — and real estate billionaire Trump are promoting the American Center for Law and Justice’s Tweet for Youcef program, as is actress Patricia Heaton, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, Rep. Michele Bachmann, and actress Julie Benz. Kaká alone has more than 8.8 million followers.
In September and October, the Rev. Franklin Graham www.newsmax.com/InsideCover/Franklin-Graham-Iranian-Pastor/2011/10/03/id/412998 also publicly denounced the looming execution of Nadarkhani, as did House Speaker John Boehner, the European Union, France, Great Britain, Mexico, and Germany.
Dwight Bashir, deputy director for policy and research with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said: “I think it’s important to understand the death sentence for apostasy is not something that’s actually codified in Iran’s penal code. It’s something that the ruling mullahs can determine on their interpretation of Shariah law. But there is nothing in Iranian law that says being charged and found guilty of apostasy results in the death penalty. There isn’t such a thing. It’s an interpretation.”
Bashir told Newsmax that the last known case of apostasy in Iran involved Pastor Hossein Soodmand, who was hanged in December 1990.
“The problem with Iran is that they try not to keep a paper trail. The thing is in this case there is a piece of paper, a verdict — death for apostasy — that was signed,” he said, referring to the Nadarkhani case.
“There’s been several hundred Christians who have been arrested in the past year,” he explained, adding that more than 300 Christians have been arbitrarily arrested and detained since June of 2010 in Iran, with about a dozen still in prison.
Bashir said his organization would like President Barack Obama to speak out regularly on the issue. “We think that the president should be regularly and consistently demanding the release of prisoners of conscience, including pastor Nadarkhani,” he said.
Dr. Khataza Gondwe of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a humanitarian organization that specializes in religious freedom, added that arrests of Christians in Iran have increased over the past month. An entire Christian congregation, including children, was detained during its recent Christmas celebration.
“Most of the attacks on Christians — or upsurge — is usually accompanied by some type of propaganda campaign where key figures in the establishment start to hurl insults at particularly the house church movement — calling them all sorts of things like parasites that have been implanted there to ruin the faith of the masses,” Gondwe explained from her office in London.
The American Center for Law and Justice, which focuses on constitutional law and works to protect religious and human rights around the world, fears that Nadarkhani could become a bargaining chip in Iran’s ongoing dispute with the international community over its nuclear program.
“Iran would love to make this President Obama vs. Ayatollah because it’s America vs. Iran,” Sekulow observed.
It is not clear how much — or how little — Nadarkhani knows about the global attention that his case has brought, but Sekulow suspects that the pastor is given little information, making his plight all the more compelling.
Reported to be in his early 30s, Nadarkhani was given several opportunities to recant his Christian faith and accept the Prophet Muhammad in September in exchange for his freedom, but he refused — choosing a path that is comparable to a modern-day biblical martyr.
"It’s like one of those stories,” Sekulow insisted. “This is just too far. We know that they don’t have to do this under their legal system. There’s no law that says you have to do this.”
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