.- Reports in Iran indicate that a Christian pastor who was arrested on Christmas Day has been released, while a second pastor remains in prison for his religious beliefs.
“Iran must not be allowed to persecute individuals because of their faith,” stressed Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based American Center for Law and Justice, which has been monitoring the plight of Christians in Iran.
In a Jan. 7 blog post, Sekulow relayed news of Christian pastor Yousef Nadarkhani’s release from prison in Iran after being arrested on Christmas Day.
The 35-year-old pastor was originally arrested in 2009 after complaining to local authorities about his son being forced to read the Quran at school.
Found guilty of apostasy for converting from Islam to Christianity, Nadarkhani was ordered to recant or face execution. But despite numerous threats, he refused to abandon his Christian beliefs.
An execution order for the pastor was reported in February 2012. As fears of a secret execution grew, the American Center for Law and Justice worked to keep an international spotlight on the situation, prompting pressure from the United States, the United Nations and Brazil, which has a key economic partnership with Iran.
Amid increasing calls for the pastor's freedom, Nadarkhani was acquitted in September 2012. While the court preserved his three-year sentence for “evangelizing to Muslims,” it determined that his time spent in prison was adequate, and the remaining time – about 45 days – could be served on probation.
However, on Christmas Day, Iranian sources reported that the pastor was re-arrested and order to serve the remainder of his sentence in jail.
Religious liberty advocates immediately raised concerns, noting not only that Iran had violated the terms of the pastor’s release, but also that his attorney, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, had been imprisoned as well.
Sekulow observed that Nadarkhani “has become the face of persecution around the world” and explained his re-arrest on Christmas Day demonstrates Iran’s intention of making him an example “to intimidate people of minority faiths.”
The pastor’s release was “a direct result of people across the world standing up and demanding his freedom,” he said.
But while he welcomed Nadarkhani’s freedom, Sekulow also emphasized that another Christian pastor, Saeed Abedini, remains imprisoned in Iran for his faith.
After converting from Islam to Christianity, Abedini – who is a U.S. citizen – drew the ire of Iranian officials for helping to start house churches in the country. In 2009, he reached an agreement with the Iranian government that permitted him to travel freely in the country if he stopped working with these underground churches.
The 32-year-old pastor then shifted his focus towards humanitarian efforts with non-religious Iranian orphanages, according to his wife. However, during a September trip to visit his parents and work with these orphanages, he was arrested.
He is now being held in one of Iran’s “most notoriously brutal and abusive prisons,” Sekulow warned.
Abedini’s family members in Iran are currently under house arrest, while his wife and young children are in the U.S., working to secure his freedom and speaking up about the toll his imprisonment has taken on the family.
The American Center for Law and Justice has launched a petition calling on the U.S. government to take action on behalf of Abedini. That petition has drawn more than 64,000 signatures so far.
“Iran is watching and responds to immense international pressure,” Sekulow emphasized, calling for renewed efforts and prayers for the pastor.
“We must continue to demand that Iran stop abusing and persecuting Christians and those willing to defend human rights,” he said.