Heroic Christian Pastor Set Free in Iran

In a case that has galvanized Christians around the world, Iranian Christian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani has been set free after three years in prison where he was awaiting death for embracing Christ.

CNSNews is reporting that the Iranian government freed Nadarkhani on Saturday after a six hour court appearance that ended with his acquittal on apostasy charges, which are punishable by death in that country.  Authorities found him guilty of the lesser charge of evangelizing Muslims with a sentence equaling the time he already served.

Jason DeMars of Present Truth Ministries, who has sources close to the case, said that Nadarkhani has been reunited with his family, and quoted him as saying, “Thank you to everyone that has supported me with your prayers.”

Nadarkhani, who is in his early 30’s and is the father of two young sons, was arrested in 2009 and sentenced to death for apostasy. For months, Iranian authorities tried to persuade him to renounce his faith in Jesus Christ in return for his life, but he repeatedly refused.

The longer the case wore on, the more embarrassing it became for Iran. The government tried to deny that Nadarkhani was being targeted for his faith and tried to convince the world that he was in prison for other offenses such as rape or “being a Zionist.” However, official court documents show that the young Christian pastor was sentenced to death for “turning his back on Islam.”

CNS reports that the same document also said Nadarkhani “often participated in Christian worship and organized home church services, evangelizing and has been baptized and baptized others, converting Muslims to Christianity” and that “during court trials he denied the prophecy of Mohammed and the authority of Islam.”

The case drew international condemnation.  A bipartisan U.S. House of Representatives resolution called on Iran “to exonerate and immediately and unconditionally release Youcef Nadarkhani and all other individuals held or charged on account of their religious or political beliefs.”

Christian persecution watchdog groups such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) rallied the faithful while legal organizations such as the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) spearheaded calls for Nadarkhani’s release. The ACLJ organized massive petition drives that gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures and ran a social media campaign that kept the world informed of Nadarkhani’s condition via more than 3.1 million Twitter accounts a day.

“Today marks a day of celebration,” the ACLJ said in a statement. “Your prayers, your advocacy, and your voice has been heard. Please continue to pray for Pastor Youcef’s safety.”

DeMars is also asking for prayer for Nadarkhani, recalling the case of Mehdi Dibaj, an Iranian Christian convert from Islam who was also imprisoned for his faith in the early 90’s. An international outcry helped to set him free after a year in jail, but he was abducted and killed months later.

“Please don’t forget what happened to Pastor Mehdi Dibaj who had his apostasy charges reversed and then was murdered shortly after his release,” DeMars said. “Pray for [Nadarkhani], his family and everyone involved in his case.”

CSW chief executive Mervyn Thomas called the decision to release Nadarkhani “a triumph for justice and the rule of law.”

“While we rejoice at this wonderful news, we do not forget hundreds of others who are harassed or unjustly detained on account of their faith,” he said. “CSW is committed to continue campaigning until all of Iran’s religious minorities are able to enjoy religious freedom as guaranteed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is party.”

The ACLJ is organizing an event called 48 Hours for Religious Freedom on Sept. 22-23 – “a worldwide gathering of people of faith to raise international awareness about religious discrimination and persecution so that, together, we can stand against discrimination and persecution wherever they occur.”

Although the event was originally scheduled to draw attention to the Nadarkhani case, organiziers say it will still be held in order to focus the public’s attention on the many other Christians who are being persecuted in Iran.

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