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EDITORIAL: Saving Pastor Yousef

Death sentence for Iranian Christian catches world attention

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The Islamic regime in Tehran is believed to have given the go-ahead this week for the execution of Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani for the crime of apostasy against an Islamic religion he never held. The international attention his case has attracted may be the only thing keeping him alive.

Mr. Nadarkhani, a Christian cleric, was arrested in his home city of Rasht in October 2009 after questioning the policy of mandatory Islamic religious instruction for Iranian children. After interrogation, which included torture, he was charged with apostasy and evangelizing Muslims. In September 2010, he was convicted and sentenced to death. His wife, on trial for lesser charges, was given life in prison.

In June, after an international outcry erupted over the conviction, Iran's supreme court issued a stay of execution and instructed the lower court to review whether Mr. Nadarkhani had been a practicing Muslim as an adult, since if he had not accepted the religion he could not be an apostate. Prosecutors contended this point was irrelevant because the apostasy law applies to those with "Muslim ancestry." Last autumn, Mr. Nadarkhani was given an opportunity to recant his Christian faith and save his life. When asked to do so he replied, "Repent means to return. What should I return to?" When told he must return "to the religion of [his] ancestors, Islam," Mr. Nadarkhani said, "I cannot."

On Thursday, the State Department condemned "in the strongest possible terms" reports that Mr. Nadarkhani's death sentence was reaffirmed. "The trial and sentencing process for Pastor Nadarkhani demonstrates the Iranian government's total disregard for religious freedom, and further demonstrates Iran's continuing violation of the universal rights of its citizens," it said.

This drama is part of a series of Iranian human-rights violations capturing the world spotlight. Last week, it was learned that the case of web developer Saeed Malekpour was transferred to the Circuit Court for Execution of Sentences and his hanging could take place at any time. The Canadian resident was convicted of "spreading corruption" after a program he wrote was allegedly used by a third party to upload pornography. Blogger Vahid Asghari is facing the same fate. In January, the regime cracked down on independent journalists, arresting at least six, all of whom have been activists for greater freedom of thought and association, political reform or for women's rights.

Publicizing these cases may have an impact on the mullahs. Tehran periodically attempts to shed its status as a pariah state, and such outright oppression makes that difficult. In one of his letters from prison, Mr. Nadakhani told his supporters, "Retain your souls with patience. For there is no man that doeth anything in secret." Iran's prisoners of conscience only have a fighting chance for life so long as the whole world is watching.

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