Two independent United Nations human rights experts have welcomed the release of a pastor in Iran who was charged with apostasy, while voicing deep concern over the arrest and detention of hundreds of Christians in recent years.
The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, and the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, called on the authorities to “ease the current climate of fear in which many churches operate, especially protestant evangelical houses of worship.”
Mr. Shaheed welcomed the acquittal and subsequent release from prison earlier this month of Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who spent three years in prison for charges that, in his view, do not qualify as offences in Iran’s current Penal Code.
He said that while the Iranian judiciary is to be commended for its decision to release Mr. Nadarkhani, “questions remain as to why he spent three years in prison apparently for practicing his religion,” a right guaranteed in Iran’s Constitution and in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the country ratified in 1975.
Born to Muslim parents, Mr. Nadarkhani converted to Christianity at the age of 19 and became a member of a Protestant church in Rasht, according to a news release issued by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
Mr. Nadarkhani was arrested in October 2009 on charges of apostasy. In September 2010, he was found guilty and sentenced to death on charges of apostasy and evangelism, following a trial in which the guarantees of due process of law had not been properly applied, according to Mr. Shaheed.
The sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court, with the caveat that unless the accused renounced Christianity, he would be executed by hanging. In early September 2012, Iranian judicial authorities reduced Mr. Nadarkhani’s charge to ‘evangelizing Muslims,’ and his sentence to three years, which he was credited with having already served.
Based on his own interviews and reports from various non-governmental organizations, Mr. Shaheed estimates that over 300 Christians have been arbitrarily arrested and detained throughout the country since June 2010, and that at least 41 individuals were detained for periods ranging from one month to over a year, sometimes without official charges.
“Scores of other Christians appear to remain in detention for freely practicing their religion,” said the expert, noting that “churches continue to report undue pressure to report membership, in what appears to be an effort to pressure and sometimes even detain converts, despite articles 13, 14, and 26 of the Iranian Constitution which protect the rights of Christians and others.”
Mr. Bielefeldt pointed out that Iran possesses the basic legal framework to guarantee Christians, as a group, the right to freedom of religion, and should ensure that this right is granted in practice.
“The right to conversion in this context is an inseparable part of freedom of religion or belief as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” he noted.
Mr. Bielefeldt also called for the protection of other religious minorities such as the Baha’is, Yarsanis, Dervishes and other religions, faiths or beliefs not recognized by the Iranian Constitution.
Independent experts, or special rapporteurs, are appointed by the Geneva-based Human Rights Council to examine and report back, in an unpaid capacity, on specific human rights themes.