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Stories from Two Iranian PrisonsFaith McDonnell September 30, 2011
Last week, September 21, 2011, American hikers Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal were released from prison in Iran. You know the story. The two men and Bauer’s girlfriend, Sarah Shroud, were accused by the Iranian government of espionage and imprisoned in the infamous Evin prison, which has been the place of incarceration for many Iranian Christians and other dissidents, after they unwittingly crossed the Iraq/Iran border.
Shroud was released on bail (almost half a million dollars) in September 2010 due to health issues, but the men remained imprisoned another year. It took close to a million dollars to buy freedom for Bauer and Fattal with the help of diplomats from Switzerland and Oman. Enormous effort was exerted on their behalf by individuals and organizations alike, including national church groups.
On Sunday, September 25, soon after arriving back in the United States, Bauer and Fattal held a press conference at New York’s elegant Parker Meridien Hotel bordering Central Park. They expressed gratitude to friends, family, and members of the “Free the Hikers” campaign. But their gratitude did not extend to their country. They blamed United States foreign policy for their incarceration. And they depicted Iran’s brutal incarceration of the innocent as morally equivalent with America’s imprisoning terrorist jihadists at Guantanamo Bay.
Iranian-American journalist Lisa Daftari writes about the hikers’ statements that “after 781 days at Evin Prison, it is completely audacious for the hikers to point any fingers at the U.S. and to still see the evils of the Iranian regime as only relative to the crimes of this nation or any other.” She says that this behavior indicates “a refusal to believe that evil exists and that fundamentalist ideology wants death and destruction for the West.”
Bauer told the press that “the irony of it all” was that he and Josh and Sarah “oppose U.S. policies towards Iran which perpetuate this hostility.” Daftari, whose parents fled Iran around the time of the Islamic revolution comments, “They find irony in the fact that since their political ideologies differ with those of the U.S. then they did not deserve to be imprisoned.”
“Does that mean that perhaps someone who does agree with U.S. foreign policy then, does?” she demanded. “Or are they merely using their five minutes of fame, and their first public appearance, to make political statements against the democracy in which they live?”
Regardless of whether either or both of those propositions explains the hikers’ attitude, the true irony is to compare their imprisonment and release to that of a young Iranian pastor, Youcef Nadarkhani. Like Bauer and Fattal, Nadarkhani, who is from Rasht in the Gilan Province of northern Iran, was arrested in 2009. But unless God provides a miracle, it seems as if the only way that Nadarkhani will be released from prison will be through execution for apostasy from Islam.
Nadarkhani, the pastor of a 400-plus member network of house churches in the evangelical Church of Iran, was arrested, not for reckless wandering in a foreign nation, but for objecting to a requirement in his country’s education system that was contrary to the Iranian Constitution. Christian children, including Nadarkhani’s own two little boys, Yoel and Daniel, aged eight and nine, were required to study the Koran in school. School officials reported Nadarkhani after he told them that the country’s law guaranteed freedom of religious practice.
Soon after, the pastor was charged with apostasy from Islam because of his Christian faith. Even though Nadarkhani became a Christian as a teenager, Islamic law dictates that the child of Muslim parents is a Muslim. He was also charged with evangelization of Muslims and “denying Islamic values.” Although the death sentence isn’t specifically prescribed for apostasy under Iranian law, the Rasht court was so intent on punishing Nadarkhani that they used a loophole in the constitution and based their verdict on fatwas (religious rulings) by the Ayatollahs.
During Nadarkhani's imprisonment in Lakan Prison, authorities used various methods, including medications and solitary confinement, as well as torture, to try to convert him back to Islam. To put more pressure on him, on June 18, 2010, Islamic authorities arrested his wife, Fatemah “Tina” Pasindedih. Tina was also charged with apostasy and sentenced to life in prison. Her sentence was later overturned and she was released, but while she was imprisoned, both she and Nadarkhani were told that their sons would be taken away from them and given to Muslims. In spite of all this, Nadarkhani has stayed true to the Gospel of Christ.
Four times, Nadarkhani was asked to recant his faith in Jesus Christ, and four times, he has refused. In a letter sent from prison to his church, he urged the people to remain faithful and to accept persecution as “part of their spiritual course.” And sadly, it does seem as if persecution has been part of the spiritual course of Iranian Christians for decades. For example, five of the top Christian leaders in Iran were killed in the space of six years during the 1990's, and more recently, both house church leaders and church members have been arrested and imprisoned across the country. Shaun Bauer and Josh Fattal told of hearing "screams of other prisoners being beaten" in Evin Prison. Some of these may well have been those of Christian prisoners.
Until the last few days, there was no outcry for Nadarkhani as there has been for the American hikers. Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, wrote in National Review Online that there had been "a notable lack of interest" in the fate of Pastor Nadarkhani "from the main religious and human-rights groups" that led the campaign on behalf of the American hikers. A delegation of Christian and Muslim leaders, including officials from the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), along with Episcopal bishop John Chane and Roman Catholic cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, had a role in negotiating the release of Bauer and Fattal when they made a six-day trip to Iran in September. In fact, it was just a week after the delegation returned to the United States that Iran’s Supreme Court “cleared the way for the evangelical leader to be hanged” says Shea.
Now when it is well past the eleventh hour, the story of Youcef Nadarkhani has touched hearts and outraged them, as well. Today’s Washington Post online listed the two most popular stories in the “national news” category as about Nadarkhani. His plight appears on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites. Before either the White House or State Department released any reaction to Nadarkhani’s death sentence, political support came from House Speaker John Boehner, who said:
Religious freedom is a universal human right. The reports that Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani will be sentenced to death by the Iranian government unless he disavows his Christian faith are distressing for people of every country and creed. While Iran’s government claims to promote tolerance, it continues to imprison many of its people because of their faith. This goes beyond the law to an issue of fundamental respect for human dignity. I urge Iran’s leaders to abandon this dark path, spare Yousef Nadarkhani’s life, and grant him a full and unconditional release.
On Thursday, September 29, the White House released a press statement denouncing the sentencing, as well:
The United States condemns the conviction of Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani. Pastor Nadarkhani has done nothing more than maintain his devout faith, which is a universal right for all people. That the Iranian authorities would try to force him to renounce that faith violates the religious values they claim to defend, crosses all bounds of decency, and breaches Iran’s own international obligations. A decision to impose the death penalty would further demonstrate the Iranian authorities' utter disregard for religious freedom, and highlight Iran's continuing violation of the universal rights of its citizens. We call upon the Iranian authorities to release Pastor Nadarkhani, and demonstrate a commitment to basic, universal human rights, including freedom of religion.
And finally, on Friday, the 30th, the U.S. State Department provided a response under Secretary Clinton’s own signature. In the middle of a larger statement denouncing the violations of human rights in Iran, Clinton said, “We are particularly concerned by reports that Christian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani is facing execution on charges of apostasy for refusing to recant his faith.”
Please continue to pray for Pastor Nadarkhani. We know that God is able to bring good out of evil, and there is great good in the slow, but steady passion for justice and mercy that has been aroused by the persecution of Youcef Nadarkhani. And of course, we know that if Nadarkhani is executed, he will be with the Lord whom he loves. But for the sake of his family, the followers of Christ in Iran, and for the sake of our own testimony before the Lord that we sought justice, “visited” Nadarkhani in prison with our support and prayers, and sought to “set the captive” free, let us keep up the pressure on our government and on the world community to do all we can to bring this brother to freedom.
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