There are a lot of different factors at play here and, while this event means the world to Nadarkhani and his family and friends, it does not change the fact that people are being held in prison for their faith around the world - including still in Iran. In fact, some would say that Pastor Youcef may be in greater danger now than he was when he was being held in prison. It is all too common for Christian leaders to simply "disappear" one day and never be seen or heard from again.
The official word out of Iran was that Nadarkhani was acquitted by a court in Rasht after having been sentenced to death for abandoning Islam. He was, however, convicted of evangelizing among Muslims, a crime with a 3 year prison sentence - time he had already served. So he was released. But why now? And why the about-turn after repeated appeals that failed and even resulted in the imprisonment of his lawyer? I don't pretend to know the answers, but here are some talking points.
- Iranian Prime Minister Ahmadinijad will be speaking at the United Nations in New York on September 26th. It makes sense that Iran would want to get this high profile case out of the news before his appearance. Nadarkhani's cause has been taken up by numerous world leaders and Iran can use all the good P.R. they can get. On the other hand, Iran has not shown much concern for international opinion.
- It may be that Iranian leaders simply wanted to put an end to the public attention Youcef's case has been drawing, and they didn't want the negative attention his execution would bring. They were able to save face by convicting him of evangelizing among Muslims. Again, hopefully this does not result in a less formal or less public form of Islamic "justice."
- There may have been disagreement among Iranian leadership as to what to do with Nadarkhani. His lawyer, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, argued in court that Iran, as a signatory to several international treaties, was required to allow freedom of religion.The idea that Iran allows for freedom of religion is a joke, not only in Iran but in any nation using Sharia law.
According to CIA's World Factbook, Christians, Jews and Hindi face relentless persecution. And according to the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), the group largely responsible for bringing public attention to Youcef's case, another Pastor, Farshid Fathi, has been locked up in Iran’s Evin prison since December 2010 for what the ACLJ describes as practicing his Christian faith.
He was distributing Bibles in Iran's language of Farsi, and thus was accused of “actions against national security.” The prison is notorious for its horrid conditions, physical and psychological torture, violent interrogations and sleep deprivation. He is one of many Iranian Pastors paying a high price for his faith.
What is the answer? I don't know. What I do know from history is that the church has often grown the most during times of persecution - witness the initial growth of the early church after persecution broke out in Jerusalem. In fact, throughout history, persecution in some form or another has been the norm. The church in Iran has been experiencing "explosive growth" says Open Doors, a ministry serving the persecuted church. While we must continue to pray for the wrongfully imprisoned, and work and speak out for justice, always remember that God often uses the most difficult situations to advance His Kingdom.
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