WASHINGTON (BP)—The Iranian government should publicly apologize to a pastor imprisoned nearly three years for his faith, and every country should release its prisoners of conscience, a Southern Baptist ethics think tank has urged.

In a statement released Thursday (Oct. 11), the Research Institute of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission called for the dual actions in the wake of Youcef Nadarkhani's release after an imprisonment of 1,062 days in which he refused to recant his Christian faith.

The ERLC's Research Institute fellows called for Iranian officials to "publicly apologize to Pastor Nadarkhani for their flagrant abuse of his God-given right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, and for the humiliation, loss of honor, pain, suffering, and loss of livelihood to which he and his family were subjected for nearly three years."

In a universal appeal, the panel urged every country to "honor the God-given freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, and release every prisoner whose only offense relates to these."

"We further commit ourselves to pray and work for the release of every prisoner of conscience and to do all that we can to promote and protect freedom of conscience here and around the world," they said, adding in a sign of solidarity with Nadarkhani, "e invite all people to receive Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior for the complete and everlasting forgiveness of their sin and eternal peace with God."

The week after Nadarkhani's release, ERLC's trustees named him as one of the 2012 recipients of the John Leland Religious Liberty Award. The ERLC's Research Institute is an evangelical Christian think tank of 32 fellows, who include seminary presidents and ethicists.

A court in the northern Iran city of Rasht acquitted Nadarkhani Sept. 8 of apostasy, which carried a death sentence. The court found Nadarkhani guilty of evangelizing Muslims and sentenced him to three years in prison. It released him for time already served.

Nadarkhani refused to renounce his confession of faith in Christ despite his long imprisonment, which included torture and separation from his wife and children.

His release followed pressure from the Obama administration, Congress and other countries protesting the militant Islamic regime of Iran.

ERLC President Richard Land said, "Long ago 17th-century Baptist Roger Williams declared that for any man to coercively interfere with another man's relationship with his God is rape of the soul. As Baptists we call on all people of good will to join together in calling for worldwide recognition of this God-given right of individual conscience."

In their statement, the Research Institute fellows said Iran's actions toward Nadarkhani "violated one of the most basic of human rights -- the freedom of conscience." That right is granted by God and affirmed by the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Iran has signed, they pointed out.

The fellows also condemned the "the horrific behavior of Iran toward its citizens who choose a faith other than Islam."

Iran is one of eight governments classified by the U.S. State Department as "countries of particular concern," a designation reserved for the world's most severe violators of religious freedom. The other seven are Burma, China, Eritrea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.

The Research Institute's entire statement may be accessed online at ERLC Research Institute. Southern Baptists and others may sign in agreement with the statement supporting Nadarkhani.

Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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