After nearly three years of incarceration in an Iranian jail, where he awaited a death sentence for the charge of apostasy, Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani was finally released earlier today. The American Center for Law and Justice, an advocacy group that has done extraordinary work in raising Nadarkhani's profile in the U.S. and internationally, published a photograph of the pastor emerging from the gates of the notorious Lakan prison in the north of Iran. As Nadarkhani's children greeted him with flowers, he wore the bewildered smile of someone who can't quite believe that his luck has suddenly changed.
The Iranian regime's apologists in the United States, among them Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council, and Hillary Mann Leverett, a former Clinton administration advisor, will certainly trumpet Nadarkhani's release as proof that Tehran is amenable to outside overtures. That is why we should remember, before we get too carried away with the image of a kinder, softer Iran, that Nadarkhani is not the only Christian who has been imprisoned for his beliefs.
Moreover, Nadarkhani was not exonerated. One of the Christian activists who has been monitoring his plight explained to me that while the apostasy charge was dismissed, the lesser charge of engaging in evangelical activities was upheld. As a consequence, the court sentenced Nadarkhani to three years in prison. Since he had already served two years and eleven months, the judge agreed to his release, on the condition that he paid a fine in lieu of the outstanding month.
Nadarkhani complied, and is now tasting an approximation of freedom–as long as he remains in Iran, the authorities will be observing his every step. Meanwhile, other Iranian Christian leaders still languish in jail.
Among their number is Pastor Behnam Irani, like Nadarkhani a former Muslim who embraced Christianity. Irani is serving a five-year sentence for allegedly undertaking missionary work, a charge that carries with it the possibility of a death sentence for apostasy–exactly the fate that Nadarkhani was facing until a few hours ago. Throughout his time in jail, reports have regularly surfaced of the torture and beatings meted out to Irani. As the Christian Post reported at the end of August:
The pastor had been found several times unconscious in his prison cell when visited, raising fears for his well-being. A hospital examination had discovered that he was suffering from a bleeding ulcer, and officials had claimed that he would be provided with more care–but so far, that hasn't happened.
"Pastor Behnam Irani has a blood infection and he might be sent to a hospital for surgery…[They] may remove part of his intestines, which are [the] source of infection," Firouz Khandjani (a member of the Church of Iran,) had said at the time.
"However despite earlier promises nothing has been done," he said most recently.
There is also the case of Pastor Farshid Fathi, another convert from Islam to Christianity, who is serving a six year sentence in Evin prison, Tehran's version of the Lubyanka. Iranian dissidents say that Fathi is currently being held in Ward 350 of the prison, where many inmates previously subjected to torture are relocated in relatively more benign conditions. (For a detailed description of how Evin is organized, read the account of the Iranian journalist, Saeed Pourheydar, here.)
As I wrote in July, these and similar cases are part of a long-established pattern of persecution that dates back at least to 1990, when Pastor Hussein Soodman was executed for refusing to recant his Christian faith. Nadarkhani's welcome release should therefore be understood as the exception, not the rule. Moreover, timing is everything; when Canada cut relations with Iran yesterday, Foreign Minister John Baird called out the regime as being "one of the world's worst violators of human rights." In releasing Nadarkhani one day later, the mullahs are trying to prove Baird wrong, a sly trick that only the gullible will fall for.