Iranian pastor's Christmas arrest worries religious liberty advocates

Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani in prison Credit ACLJ CNA US Catholic News 2 24 12 Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani in prison during his first incarceration. | ACLJ.

A Christian pastor who spent nearly three years in an Iranian prison for his religious conversion was reportedly arrested again on Christmas Day, contrary to a previous agreement.

"Iran has historically cracked down on the Christian community over the Christmas season; this year was no exception," said Tiffany Barrans, international legal director at the American Center for Law and Justice, which has been monitoring the case of Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani.

Barrans told CNA on Jan. 2 that through the timing of the arrest, "the barbaric regime wanted to send a strong message that no Christian is beyond reach of its persecution." 
Nadarkhani was initially arrested in 2009 after complaining to local authorities about his son being forced to read the Quran at school.

As a convert, the 35-year-old pastor was found guilty of abandoning Islam, the faith of his ancestors, and ordered to recant or face execution. However, he refused to renounce his Christian beliefs, despite numerous threats.

In Feb. 2012, reports of an execution order for the pastor arose. The American Center for Law and Justice worked to keep international attention on Nadarkhani's plight, leading to pressure from the United Nations and Brazil, one of Iran's key economic partners.

After months of international attention, Nadarkhani was acquitted in September of the apostasy charge and allowed to return to his family. The court preserved his three-year sentence for "evangelizing to Muslims" but said that since he had already spent nearly three years in jail, he could serve the remaining time – about 45 days – on probation rather than in prison.

However, Iranian sources reported that the pastor was rearrested and taken into custody on Christmas Day to serve out the remainder of his sentence.

Barrans is hopeful that Nadarkhani will be released from prison when his sentence is over. However, she warned that "(g)oing back on its word is nothing new to the Iranian regime."
She noted that the Nadarkhani's attorney, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, was thrown into prison shortly after the pastor's release, leaving him very little legal recourse if the regime fails to free him after his sentence is completed.

Iran has already violated the terms of the pastor's initial release by throwing him back in prison, she explained, and this is a great cause of concern.

Barrans also voiced apprehension over the recent arrest of Iranian-born U.S. citizen Saeed Abedini, another pastor who has been imprisoned because of his faith.
A 32-year-old pastor, Abedini helped start house churches after converting from Islam to Christianity, she explained.

However, in 2009, he came to an agreement with the Iranian government that allowed him to travel freely in and out of the country as long as he stopped working with these underground churches.

In keeping with this agreement, Abedini turned his focus toward humanitarian efforts with non-religious orphanages in the country, she said. But during a trip to work with these orphanages and visit his family, he was imprisoned and has been held illegally since September.

Abedini's family in Iran is under house arrest, while his wife and children are in the United States, calling for his release.

Barrans called for prayers as the American Center for Law and Justice works to secure the safe release of both men.

"We will continue to engage with various world leaders to ensure that Iran be held responsible for its violations of fundamental religious freedoms," she said.

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