Thursday, November 24, 2011
FOR THANKSGIVING: FREEDOM, PILGRIMS, AND AN IRANIAN MINISTER NAMED YOUCEF NADARKHANI
As pressure mounts for jailed Iranian minister, Youcef Nadarkhani, to renounce his Christian faith and avoid the death penalty, some Christian ministries across the globe view this case as a bellwether moment for all middle-eastern Christians.
Nadarkhani’s conviction caused an international outcry over Iran’s 2009 decision: "Mr. Youcef Nadarkhani, son of Byrom, 32-years old, married, born in Rasht in the state of Gilan is convicted of turning his back on Islam, the greatest religion, the prophesy of Mohammad, at the age of 19."
Under Sharia law, Youcef Nadarkhani is charged with heresy, and sentenced to death by hanging because he became a Christian, and for founding a small Christian church.
A nonpracticing Muslim, Nadarkhani converted from Islam to Protestant Evangelical Christianity at the age of nineteen. Now in his thirties, Nadarkhani founded a small Christian church he named, "The Church of Iran." He first came under scrutiny in 2006 after attempting to register his church with the state. Though he was arrested, he was subsequently released. Nadarkhani again approached officials in 2009 to stop the forced teaching of Islam to his children at school. This objection led to his arrest on heresy charges.
This case has placed the Iranian court system in a precarious situation. They cannot release Nadarkhani without offending the tenets of Sharia law, and they face an angry international community if they carry out the sentence of death.
This international pressure is credited for the delay in Nadarkhani’s execution. More than that, when worldwide religious, civil, and political leaders condemned Iran’s actions toward Nadarkhani, the charges suddenly changed.
"His crime is not, as some claim, converting others to Christianity," said Gholomali Rezvani, deputy governor of of Iran's Gilan province where the pastor was convicted. "He is guilty of security-related crimes."
Charges of violence and rape were leveled at the pastor next, followed quickly by charges of spying for Israel. Rezvani quickly rushed in to explain that any misunderstanding over the charges was the result of the western press. "No one is executed in Iran for their choice of religion," Rezvani added. "[Nadarkhani] is a Zionist and has committed security-related crimes."
In an effort to pass the decision on, the Iranian court system has asked the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to decide the fate of Nadarkhani. In the interim, the pastor has been issued pro-Islamic reading material that attacks the validity of Christianity, in the hopes Nadarkhani will renounce his Christian faith and return to Islam. Family and friends of the pastor believe the court’s real hope is that when questioned, his answers will be seen as challenges to the documents, in which case new charges of heresy could be raised. Ironically, the strategy is one Christ's oppressors are recorded to have attempted to similarly convict Him.
Nadarkhani's status as a nonpracticing Muslim adds another element of controversy to his arrest and conviction. Generally, the charge of apostasy can only be leveled on a practicing Muslim adult who disavows the religion. Nadarkhani never meet that standard, but the courts ruled that Muslim ancestry alone was sufficient cause to find this pastor of a series of small house churches guilty of heresy.
Supporters from every corner of the globe rallied to the pastor’s cause. Speaker of the House John Boehner was the first U.S. official to issue a public outcry regarding this case, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the White House have since issued strong statements to the Iranian government, decrying their actions and calling for Nadarkhani’s release.
America's leaders and citizens should raise their voices on this issue. It hits close to home. As Thanksgiving approaches we are reminded that four hundred years ago similar religious freedom-seekers found themselves worshipping under penalty of imprisonment for daring to question the Church of England. Since the King of England was regarded as both the Britain's political leader and the conduit to heaven, rebellion against the church was also considered treason, punishable by imprisonment or death. Many of these religious rebels, left their homeland as banished exiles, arriving in America.
One such dissident was John Lathrop who, in 1607, was ordained a deacon for the Church of England and placed in charge of the prestigious Egerton Church in Kent where he served for 14 years. In 1623, doctrinal questions put him at odds with church doctrine and he renounced his ecclesiastical orders to secretly lead an illegal independent church. In 1632, the group was discovered and 24 members were arrested, including Lathrop. By 1634, all those arrested had been released on bail except for Lathrop. During his imprisonment his wife, Hannah House, died, and his six surviving children were found begging for bread on the streets of London. Lathrop was finally offered the option of banishment from England. He and his remaining children, and exiled members of his congregation, arrived in Boston in September of 1634. Lathrop remarried and has many notable Americans among his descendants — Joseph and Hyrum Smith, Parley P. Pratt, Oliver Cowdery, and U.S. Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin D. Roosevelt, George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush and Governor Mitt Romney.
We still have our own struggles with the issue of religious tolerance. Remember John F, Kennedy's need to delineate his faith from his governance? Centuries later, in 2009, John Lathrop's descendant Mitt Romney issued this statement when the former Massachusetts governor felt a need to assure America that if elected president, he would serve "no one religion, no one group, no one cause and no one interest. . . . I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the Savior of mankind . . . My church's beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. … These are not bases for criticism, but rather a test of our tolerance."
We still struggle with religious tolerance at times, and Iran's intolerance should make us vigilant in defending the rights of religious freedom. Religious expression needs freedom to flourish. Perhaps that underlying theme of liberty, prevalent throughout God's inspired word, is what terrifies tyrants.
The Koran itself teaches of religious freedom. “The Truth is from your Lord, whoever wills let him believe and whoever wills let him disbelieve” [Chapter 18: verse 29].
These passages from the Old and New Testament, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants reaffirm the divine right of freedom and liberty.
Galatians 5:1 — Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.
Alma 46:12 — And it came to pass that [Moroni] rent his coat; and he took a piece thereof, and wrote upon it — In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children — and he fastened it upon the end of a pole.
Isaiah 61:1 — The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound;
Doctrine and Covenants 98:5 — And that law of the land which is constitutional, supporting that principle of freedom in maintaining rights and privileges, belongs to all mankind, and is justifiable before me.
Alma 61:14-15 — Therefore, my beloved brother, Moroni, let us resist evil, and whatsoever evil we cannot resist with our words, yea, such as rebellions and dissensions, let us resist them with our swords, that we may retain our freedom, that we may rejoice in the great privilege of our church, and in the cause of our Redeemer and our God . . . according to the Spirit of God, which is also the spirit of freedom which is in them.
"...the Spirit of God, which is also the spirit of freedom which is in each of His children."
May God bless you, Mr. Nadarkhani. We are praying for you.