Pastor's Death Sentence Highlights Christians' Plight

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Thirty-two years ago this month Americans were taken hostage when Iranian militants seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

That was the start of an Islamic revolution that not only brought Sharia law to the country, but also one of the fastest growing house church movements in the world today.

Disillusioned with Islam, more Iranians are now embracing Christianity than perhaps at any other time since the Muslim invasion of Persia in the 7th century.

Crackdown on Christians

A massive government crackdown against Christians has led to the imprisonment of many believers and the threatened execution of a pastor.

At least 285 Christians in 35 cities were arrested in Iran during the second half of 2010. Many have spent week, and even months in prison, often serving long stretches in solitary confinement.

They also have endured interrogations and psychological abuse.

Iranian Pastor Hormoz Shariat of Iran Alive Ministries, formerly International Antioch Ministries, hosts a satellite television show that is broadcast into Iran. 

Shariat said most often the Iranian Revolutionary Guards arrest and don't even tell their family.

"They can't have a lawyer, not even a formal charge," Shariat said. "Sometimes they get killed without even a formal charge."

When President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office in 2005, he pledged to halt the spread of Christianity in Iran.

Facing the Death Penalty

The threatened execution of 34-year old Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani is a part of the crackdown.

Nadarkhani had challenged a government requirement that Christian students be forced to recite the Koran and learn Islam in the public schools.

Pastor Youcef leads one of the country's fastest growing house churches, which is now 400 members.

He was arrested in October 2009 and was eventually charged with leaving the Islamic faith, even though he claims that he was never a Muslim.

After he was sentenced to death, Christians prayed and others in the international community demanded the pastor's release.

The Iranian government responded saying the world had it wrong, that Nadarkhani was charged with rape and extortion, not apostasy.

His case is now in the hands of the Ayatollah. Meanwhile, the Special Rapporteur at the U.N. accused Iran of violating human rights, and demanded the release of Nadarkhani and several other prisoners.

No Safe Place

Open Doors President Carl Moeller said even if the Ayatollah frees Nadarkhani and the pastor returns home to his wife and two boys, he will not be out of danger.

"Unfortunately he is not out of danger at all," Moeller explained. "In fact what we have seen in numerous cases over the last 30 years in Iran is that someone may be judicially acquitted or released on a technicality, but then their lives are deeply also under threat."

"As was the case with Mehdi Dibaj in the 90s and with Pastor Hovsepian, the reality is they were killed after they were released from (being) interrogated and from imprisoned," he said.

"That's a reality that can happen any day, to any Christian in Iran," he continued. "They can simply disappear, or they can be tortured or arrested without any judicial process."

"So, by no means is Pastor Youcef's situation free and clear if he is acquitted of these charges," he said.

National Security Threat?

The government-- for the first time--is admitting that Iranians are leaving the Islamic faith and becoming Christians.

"The government is intentionally going after the house churches. The Supreme leader, he came and said the house churches in Iran are a threat to our national security," Shariat said.

He explained that that claim was a signal for the government to target house church Christians and especially their leaders.

Iranian Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi has warned against the strong attraction of Christianity among Iranian youth.

He recently admitted the government crackdown has failed to stop the spread of Christianity in Iran.

Prophetic Call to Prayer

Middle East analyst and author Joel Rosenberg said people like Pastor Youcef and others are putting their lives on the line for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

"More Muslims are coming to faith than ever before but it is not enough. We also need to pray that the Gospel is spread throughout all of Iran," Rosenberg said.

"Jeremiah 49 tells us that God is eventually going to set His throne inside Iran," he said. "I think Iran is going to become a sending country for evangelical Christian missionaries coming from a Shia Muslim background."

"The church in Iran is begging us to not forget them, to stand one with them, and to create the opportunity for the spirit of God to move as a witness through their persecution in Iran," Moeller said.

Revolutionary Warning

Iran's Islamic government is likely to continue the crackdown. Many Iranians are worried that similar radical Islamic governments could arise in other Middle Eastern countries.

As revolutions and uprisings spread throughout the Middle East, Shariat said his Iranian viewers are warning Arabs to learn from what happened in Iran in 1979 when Iranians protested against the shah and got Ayatollah Khomeini instead.

"They are telling their brothers and sisters, watch out, watch out, this is what we did," he explained. "We wanted freedom, we wanted democracy, and we allowed the religious fanatics to take over. Please don't let that happen to you."

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Gary Lane

Gary Lane

CBN News International Correspondent

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