The death sentence given to Youcef Nadarkhani in Iran is an affront to universal moral values and a disservice to Muslims.
In 1948, most of the world’s Muslim-majority nations signed up to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including article 18, “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” which includes, crucially, the “freedom to change his religion or belief”. The then Pakistani foreign minister, Muhammad Zafarullah Khan, wrote: “Belief is a matter of conscience, and conscience cannot be compelled.”
Fast-forward to 2011: 14 Muslim-majority nations make conversion away from Islam illegal; several – including Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Sudan – impose the death penalty on those who disbelieve. The self-styled Islamic Republic of Iran has sentenced to death by hanging a Christian pastor, born to Muslim parents, for apostasy. At the time of writing, Youcef Nadarkhani, head of a network of Christian house churches in Iran, is on death row for refusing to recant and convert back to Islam.
The decision to execute Nadarkhani beggars belief. For a start, the sentence handed down by judges in the pastor’s home city of Rasht a year ago, and affirmed by the country’s supreme court in June, is in clear violation not just of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but Iran’s own constitution. Article 23 is crystal clear: “The investigation of individuals’ beliefs is forbidden, and no one may be molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief.”