Youcef Nadarkhani, a pastor who was facing execution in Iran on charges of apostasy, was released and acquitted on Saturday. His wife and children greeted him outside Lakan prison in Iran, where he spent more than three years awaiting his execution. Relatives shed tears as Nadarkhani was reunited with his family. Firouz Khandjani, a friend of Nadarkhani and fellow house church leader, called his release “an answer to prayers.”
Earlier this summer Nadarkhani had been assigned a new court date of September 8, 2012. Some sources guessed that the pastor might face a new set of charges – which, according to his attorney, proved accurate. Mohammad Ali Dadkha, who has represented Nadarkhani throughout the case, explained the unexpected turn of events for his client. “At the court session on Saturday, Youcef Nadarkhani was acquitted of the charge of ‘apostasy,’ as well as the new charge of ‘extortion,’” he said. “He was only sentenced to three years in prison on the charge of ‘propaganda against the regime,’ and as he had already spent this time in prison, he was therefore released after his court session.”
Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, who was facing his own prison sentence in May of this year for defending prisoners of conscience such as Youcef Nadarkhani, said that the victory came swiftly. “I presented my defense of my client in court today, and then the judge acquitted him of his charges,” he explained.
Mr. Dadkhah reported that Nadarkhani “was released from prison [on Saturday] after three years and has been reunited with his family now.”
A photo published by the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) on Saturday showed Youcef Nadarkhani emerging from Lakan Prison, greeted by his wife and children. “Today marks a day of celebration,” read a statement from ACLJ. “Your prayers, your advocacy, and your voice has been heard. Please continue to pray for Pastor Youcef’s safety.”
Youcef Nadarkhani’s case garnered international attention when his death sentence was upheld by a supreme court in Iran in 2011. A Twitter campaign generated by ACLJ gained more than 3 million followers throughout the world who tweeted for Youcef’s release daily. His story was covered in major news outlets throughout the world.
Jordan Sekulow, Executive Director for ACL said that Pastor Youcef’s story “is an example of how the world can join together to ensure that justice is served and freedom preserved.”
While individuals close to the case are happy to hear about the unexpected release, some sources remain concerned for Nadarkhani’s safety. Tiffany Barrans, who serves as legal director for ACLJ,said that "while we praise the release of Pastor Youcef, we must recognize that Iran felt obligated to save face among its people and continue its pattern of suppressing religious freedom with intimidation tactics.”
Jason DeMars of Present Truth Ministries, who has remained close to the case since the beginning, is concerned that Nadarkhani could face violence – or even death – upon his release. “Please don’t forget what happened to Pastor Mehdi Dibaj [another Iranian pastor who was murdered in 1994] who had his apostasy charges reversed and then was murdered shortly after his release,” he said. “Pray for him, his family and everyone involved in his case.”
In June of 2010, Nadarkhani released a letter to supporters, describing how his faith sustained him during his imprisonment. “We must not feel desperate, but we have to pray to God in supplication with more passion to help us with any assistance we may need,” he wrote. “What we are bearing today, is a difficult but not unbearable situation, because neither he has tested us more than our faith and our endurance, nor does he do as such.”
In another letter released in May of 2012, Nadarkhani thanked those who were raising awareness of his case. “From time to time I am informed about the news which is spreading in the media about my current situation,” he wrote, “for instance being supported by various churches and famous politicians who have asked for my release, or campaigns and human rights activities which are going on against the charges which are applied to me.” He said that he believed “that these kind[s] of activities can be very helpful in order to reach freedom, and respecting the human rights in a right way can bring forth great results in this,” adding, “I want to appreciate all those are trying to reach to this goal.”
Immediately after his release from Lakan Prison, Nadarkhani was able to briefly address a crowd of supporters. "Thanks to all who have supported me with prayers,” he said, "I experienced especially the presence of the Lord on my side every time.”
Kristin Wright is a columnist and contributing writer at ReligionToday.com, where she focuses on global human rights and religious freedom issues. Kristin has covered topics such as bride trafficking in North Korea, honor killings in Pakistan, the persecution of members of minority faiths in Iran, and the plight of Syrian refugees. She has visited with religious minorities in Pakistan, worked with children at risk in Mumbai's “Red Light” district, and interviewed individuals on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Kristin can be contacted via her website at kristinwright.net or email firstname.lastname@example.org.