I wrote the other day about Troy Davis, a man who faced the death penalty in America. Hours after I wrote it, he was killed. I maintain it was an appalling and brutal act, whether he was innocent or guilty. But in the coming days, another man will probably be executed. He is definitely guilty of the crime of which he is accused. He admits it. But the fact that it is a crime at all would, if it were not so tragic, be almost funny.
Youcef Nadarkhani, a Christian pastor in Iran, stands accused of apostasy. His “crime” – forgive the sarcastic quotes – is having once been Muslim, but now being Christian: from turning from one monotheistic Abrahamic religion which recognises Jesus Christ as a holy figure, to another monotheistic Abrahamic religion which recognises Jesus Christ as a holy figure. He has been asked three times to recant his beliefs, but has refused. If he refuses a fourth time, he could be executed at any time; he will be asked again today, and could die tomorrow.
This is, of course, against international law, for what little that means. More surprisingly, it is also apparently against Iranian law: Pastor Nadarkhani was not, it seems, a practising Muslim before he converted to Christianity, so there is no apostasy. One Iranian court ruled that this meant he was innocent; the Supreme Court, however, decided that because he has Muslim ancestry, he remains guilty. On such utterly fatuous threads a man’s life hangs.
His legal team includes Mohammed Ali Dadkhah, a courageous Iranian Muslim who himself been sentenced to nine years imprisonment for his legal human rights work in the country (or “actions and propaganda against the Islamic regime”, as the fantastically paranoid Iranian government considers it). Those of his team who remain out of prison are to attempt to appeal, although there is no right to do so. And, in a system as Kafkaesque as Iranian Sharia, you wouldn’t bet much on the appeal working anyway.
It’s easy as a secularist to focus on the little things that go wrong in countries that are mostly right: attempts in the US to blur the line between church and state, or prayer in school here in Britain. When some daft medievalist tries in a futile fashion to impose their idea of religious morality on the country – I’m thinking of the ghastly Stephen Green of Christian Voice, or the little band of Islamists who want to impose Sharia in British courts – we get panicky: but we often forget the real, brutal theocracies in other countries. Here in Britain, secularism, mercifully, has by-and-large won: you can worship who you like and what you like, and, up to a point, mock others for what they believe, too. That is important. But in Iran, and Saudi Arabia, and Yemen and Pakistan and a handful of other Islamic states, the brand of God you choose to believe in can be a matter of life and death.
I want to push you towards a petition or a JustGiving site or something, to contribute to the release of Pastor Nadarkhani, but there doesn’t seem to be an organised campaign and I don’t know whether a petition signed by a few Britons would really make much difference. Instead, I’ve written to my MP, to ask him to encourage the Foreign Office to express to the Iranian government their principled opposition to the death penalty in all forms, and to its appliance for religious bigotry in particular. You can do the same at www.writetothem.com. Please do, and also read David Allen Green’s fantastic blog in the New Statesman for more information.