TEHRAN (BP) -- Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani has been acquitted of apostasy and released, ending a saga that drew international attention and saw him spend more than 1,000 days in jail in the face of a death sentence -- simply for being a Christian.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported Saturday (Sept. 8) that Nadarkhani, in jail since 2009, was acquitted of apostasy -- that is, converting from Islam to Christianity -- but found guilty of evangelizing Muslims. CSW said Nadarkhani was sentenced to three years in prison for the latter charge but was released due to time already served. Nadarkhani said he never was a Muslim.
A picture of a freed Nadarkhani, greeting his family, soon made its way across the Internet and was Tweeted by Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which has championed Nadarkhani's case.
Nadarkhani's perseverance had inspired Christians around the world.
"CSW is delighted to learn of Pastor Nadarkhani's release after a long incarceration," CSW chief executive Mervyn Thomas said. "We commend the Iranian judiciary for this step, which is a triumph for justice and the rule of law. While we rejoice at this wonderful news, we do not forget hundreds of others who are harassed or unjustly detained on account of their faith, and CSW is committed to continue campaigning until all of Iran's religious minorities are able to enjoy religious freedom as guaranteed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is party."
The White House, the U.S. State Department and governments around the world had spoken up for Nadarkhani.
State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said Sept. 10 the United States welcomed reports that Nadarkhani had been released and reunited with his family.
"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," Nuland said in a statement.
"Despite this welcome news, the status of religious freedom in Iran remains grave," Nuland added. "Many more Iranians remain in prison and face persecution simply because of their faith. More than 100 Baha'is and members of the Sunni Muslim, Zoroastrian, and Gonabadi Dervish communities suffer in confinement, and we call for their immediate release. The United States will continue to stand with the people of Iran who struggle to have their fundamental human rights respected."
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom also welcomed the release of Nadarkhani and urged Iran to free other "prisoners of conscience," according to the Associated Press Sept. 9.
Jay Sekulow, ACLJ's chief counsel, told Fox News Nadarkhani's release was the result of a "global effort" and that ongoing international attention could help ensure his future safety.
Tiffany Barrans, ACLJ's international legal director, told CNN, "His ability to preach in Iran, I don't know. But I think at this point, he's going to have to some time to assess the situation and all the emotions wrapped up in that before he makes any decision."
Nadarkhani was arrested in October 2009 while registering his church in Rasht, Iran, although he initially was arrested for protesting his children being taught Islam in school, ACLJ reported. He was charged with apostasy for supposedly abandoning Islam and later was given a death sentence.
In September 2011, Nadarkhani was given four chances to recant his faith in court and refused each time. ACLJ reported one of his court exchanges.
"Repent means to return. What should I return to? To the blasphemy that I had before my faith in Christ?" Nadarkhani asked.
"To the religion of your ancestors, Islam," the judge reportedly replied.
"I cannot," the pastor responded.
Compiled by Michael Foust, associated editor of Baptist Press. With reporting by Erin Roach. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
Copyright (c) 2012 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press www.BPNews.net