-- Catholic News Agency
Iranian Pastor Freed After Three Years, Acquitted Of Apostasy Charges
WASHINGTON D.C., September 10 (CNA/EWTN News) .- Amid continued pressure from the international community, Christian pastor Yousef Nadarkhani has been released from an Iranian prison after nearly three years of facing the threat of execution for his religion.
"Today marks a day of celebration," said the American Center for Law and Justice in a Sept. 10 statement. "Your prayers, your advocacy, and your voice has been heard."
The organization hailed the pastor's release as "an example of how the world can join together to ensure that justice is served and freedom preserved."
Nadarkhani had been in jail since 2009, when he was arrested after he complained to local authorities about his son being forced to read the Quran at school. He was found guilty of abandoning Islam, the faith of his ancestors, and ordered to recant or face execution.
However despite repeated threats, he refused to renounce his Christian beliefs. In February, reports surfaced that an execution order may have been issued for the pastor.
The American Center for Law and Justice has worked in recent months to keep the international spotlight on the Nadarkhani's situation, warning that this is critical because executions in Iran are often carried out secretly.
The organization also ran a Twitter initiative to raise awareness about the Christian pastor's plight, ultimately reaching more than 3 million accounts.
As international attention grew, the Iranian regime was faced with mounting pressure from countries around the world, as well as the U.N. Special Rapporteur for human rights, who called for Nadarkhani's release at a March 12 meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Key among Iran's critics was the nation of Brazil, which maintains both a strong Christian culture and an important economic relationship with Iran.
Nadarkhani was summoned to appear in an Iranian court on Sept. 8. Reports indicated that after a six hour hearing, he was acquitted of his apostasy charge and allowed to return to his family.
However, sources told the American Center for Law and Justice that the pastor was also charged and convicted with "evangelizing to Muslims," a crime for which he was sentenced to three years in prison. The court ruled that his past three years in jail counted as filling this sentence.
The Christian pastor's release was welcomed by U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
"This comes after nearly three harrowing years during which he faced a death penalty sentence on charges of apostasy - in clear violation of Iran's international human rights commitments," she said in a statement.
"Despite this welcome news, the status of religious freedom in Iran remains grave," Nuland acknowledged. "Many more Iranians remain in prison and face persecution simply because of their faith."
She called for the "immediate release" of these individuals and said that the U.S. "will continue to stand with the people of Iran who struggle to have their fundamental human rights respected."
The American Center for Law and Justice encouraged continued prayer for Nadarkhani's safety as he is reunited with his wife and two young children.
"International attention to this matter saved this man's life," the group said, "but we must not forget the human right of freedom of religion includes the right to freedom of expression."
While it praised the pastor's release, it added that "we must recognize that Iran felt obligated to save face among its people and continue its pattern of suppressing religious freedom with intimidation tactics."
The organization is now focusing its efforts on a global 48 Hours for Religious Freedom initiative on Sept. 21-22. The event is aiming to raise worldwide awareness about those who are being persecuted for their religion. Participants are urged to plan activities within their own faith traditions, such as special worship services and candlelight vigils.
"We must also not forget the numerous other religious minorities in Iran who are imprisoned and face persecution for their faith," the group stressed.
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