Aug 5, 2020
By USCIRF Commissioner Nadine Maenza and Congressman Doug Lamborn
Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani must be released. As a religious prisoner of conscience in Iran, Pastor Nadarkhani is serving the second year of his six-year sentence, recently reduced from ten years. In the first half of this year, Iranian authorities have furloughed criminals, while those wrongly imprisoned for their religious beliefs remain locked up. In light of these circumstances, we call on the government of Iran to show mercy by releasing Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani and return him safely to his family.
As advocates for Pastor Nadarkhani, part of the bipartisan United States Commission on International Religious Freedom’s (USCIRF) Religious Prisoners of Conscience Project and United States Congress Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission’s Defending Freedoms Project, we are concerned that some governments are using the COVID-19 pandemic to unduly restrict religious freedom and stigmatize religious minorities. We are particularly concerned for the safety of religious prisoners of conscience who now face imprisonment and possible death for the crime of peacefully practicing their religion.
Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani is one such religious prisoner. He converted to Christianity at the age of 19 and leads a 400-member house church in Rasht, Iran. Since 2006, Iranian authorities have consistently harassed and detained Pastor Nadarkhani and his family. In 2010, the authorities sentenced him to death for apostasy before acquitting him in 2012. Pastor Nadarkhani was tried again in 2017 on false charges of “acting against national security” and promoting “Zionist Christianity,” for which he was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. By July 2018, plainclothes agents raided Pastor Nadarkhani’s home to execute the sentence, beating and apprehending him and using a taser gun on one of his sons. He is now incarcerated at the notorious Evin prison near Tehran.
Iran has gone after Pastor Nadarkhani’s family as well. In September 2019, he declared a three week hunger strike after the government denied both his sons, Daniel and Yoel, permission to advance their education after they asked to opt out of Muslim religious classes.
The Iranian government has shown no interest in respecting religious freedom despite its pluralistic society. In December 2019, its government removed the “other” option from the religion category on national ID cards, forcing Baha’is to register as Muslim or be denied cards altogether. Soon after in 2020, several Baha’is and Christians were imprisoned, including a city councilman jailed because he advocated for religious freedom.
Religious prisoners of conscience like Pastor Nadarkhani are a major liability to Iran’s government so long as they remain incarcerated. Were Pastor Nadarkhani to be detained further, it would increasingly jeopardize Iran’s already unstable position in the international community. Pastor Nadarkhani is an unequivocally peaceful religious leader who poses no threat to society. He should have never been detained in the first place.
The U.S. Department of State should continue to call for his release, and more Members of Congress should advocate on his behalf. The new International Religious Freedom Alliance is also an important tool for religious freedom. The United States should work with alliance members—particularly those with interests in improving religious freedom conditions in Iran—to advocate together for Pastor Nadarkhani’s release.
Until then, we pray for the health of Pastor Nadarkhani and call for his immediate release.