Commentary Magazine


Topic: religious persecution

Can We Talk About Muslim Intolerance?

In today’s New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof attempts to broach an important international issue: Muslim religious intolerance across the globe. But though he steps into this controversy, even Kristof may be too afraid of specious charges of “Islamophobia” to draw the proper conclusions from this discussion.

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In today’s New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof attempts to broach an important international issue: Muslim religious intolerance across the globe. But though he steps into this controversy, even Kristof may be too afraid of specious charges of “Islamophobia” to draw the proper conclusions from this discussion.

Despite its shortcomings, Kristof deserves some credit for raising an issue that has heretofore been treated as a taboo in the pages of the liberal flagship of the mainstream print media establishment. The Times has been one of the loudest voices touting the myth of a post-9/11 backlash against Muslims. It has campaigned against efforts to monitor homegrown Islamists and treated any concern about extremist Muslims as an expression of bigotry. It has also soft-pedaled Islamist extremism around the globe and rarely sought to explain the deep religious roots of this violent movement.

But confronted with the widespread evidence of religious persecution of non-Muslims throughout the Arab and Islamic world, Kristof does not avert his gaze. The opening of his column speaks for itself:

A Sudanese court in May sentences a Christian woman married to an American to be hanged, after first being lashed 100 times, after she refuses to renounce her Christian faith.

Muslim extremists in Iraq demand that Christians pay a tax or face crucifixion, according to the Iraqi government.

In Malaysia, courts ban some non-Muslims from using the word “Allah.”

In country after country, Islamic fundamentalists are measuring their own religious devotion by the degree to which they suppress or assault those they see as heretics, creating a human-rights catastrophe as people are punished or murdered for their religious beliefs.

These examples are, as Kristof makes clear, not isolated examples or the product of outlier forces. The trend he writes about is mainstream opinion in much of the Muslim world, even in countries that are often somewhat misleadingly labeled as “moderate” because they are supporting terrorist attacks on the West. As he rightly notes, Saudi Arabia is just as repressive toward minority faiths as Iran or Sudan. Though there are places, such as in China, where Muslim minorities are themselves the victims of religious persecution, the pattern of Islamic intolerance is almost uniform across the globe where they are in power.

But the consequences of this trend are not limited to the unfortunate fate of Christians who are being driven out of their homes in places where they have lived for millennia. Muslim aggression against non-believers is integral to the conflict with Islamist forces waging terrorist wars throughout the Middle East as well as parts of Africa.

American leaders have been at pains to try and differentiate our war against terror from a war against Islam and Muslims. They are right to do so because the West has no interest in a general war against any religion or its adherents. But you can’t understand what is driving the efforts of al-Qaeda and its many affiliates and allies, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan and ISIS in Iraq, without examining the way these groups exploit religious fervor and intolerance for non-Muslims. Islamist terror in the West cannot be separated from the intolerance against non-Muslims that Kristof laments. It is a sickness within Muslim culture and must be confronted (hopefully by Muslims) and openly discussed if it is ever to be contained.

But even as he finds his voice to speak out for the victims of this trend, Kristof pulls his punches, lest he be labeled as an Islamophobe, as so many others who have raised the alarm about this problem have been:

This is a sensitive area I’m wading into here, I realize. Islam-haters in America and the West seize upon incidents like these to denounce Islam as a malignant religion of violence, while politically correct liberals are reluctant to say anything for fear of feeding bigotry. Yet there is a real issue here of religious tolerance, affecting millions of people, and we should be able to discuss it. …

I hesitated to write this column because religious repression is an awkward topic when it thrives in Muslim countries. Muslims from Gaza to Syria, Western Sahara to Myanmar, are already enduring plenty without also being scolded for intolerance. It’s also true that we in the West live in glass houses, and I don’t want to empower our own chauvinists or fuel Islamophobia.

Muslims do have a lot on their plate these days. But as much as Kristof deserves applauses for having broken ranks with his Times brethren, he fails to connect the dots between the troubles Muslims are enduring in Gaza, Syria, and other hot spots and the virus in their political and religious culture that promotes not only religious intolerance but jihad against the West and Muslims who hesitate to join the dark forces spreading conflict.

More importantly, it’s really not possible to sound the alarm about widespread global Muslim religious persecution while at the same time still trying to stay within the boundaries of liberal political correct dogma about Islamophobia. While anti-Muslim bigots do exist and must be denounced, the use of the term Islamophobia is a buzzword for attempts to silence those seeking to highlight the very trend that Kristof seeks to bring to the attention of the readers of the Times.

Thinking seriously about Muslim intolerance and violence isn’t a function of chauvinism or hate. It’s simply a matter of acknowledging a fact about the world that can’t be ignored. A tentative step, such as the one Kristof took today, is better than none at all. But even this groundbreaking column illustrates the difficulty liberals have in talking about this subject.

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Not All Dissidents Are Heroes

Given the proclivity of dictators to label all of their domestic critics, no matter how non-violent, as “terrorists” it is understandable that there is not more outrage in the West over an attack by Uighur separatists in southern China who stabbed to death at least 29 people in a railroad station and wounded perhaps 100 more. That’s understandable, but wrong.

Let us grant that China’s policies in Xinjiang, the western province where the Uighurs live, are oppressive, even more so than in the case of the rest of the country. The Han Chinese who dominate the Chinese government have long discriminated against ethnic minorities such as the Uighurs and Tibetans. As the Washington Post notes:

Just as Chinese leaders try to control other religions, including Catholicism and evangelical Christianity, they have issued strict policies for Muslim Uighurs. They must use a state-approved Koran. The government manages mosques. And Uighur men who want government jobs have been forced to shave their beards; women are forbidden to wear headscarves.

When Uighurs try to protest such restrictions, or even agitate for independence for a new state of East Turkestan, the Chinese authorities react with the savagery typical of a police state, locking up dissidents. Little wonder, then, that some Uighurs are resorting to terrorism to fight back. But however understandable the reaction of the extremists, it is also unforgivable. The poor commuters slain in a railway station in Kunming are not responsible for their government’s polices; they are just innocent victims.

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Given the proclivity of dictators to label all of their domestic critics, no matter how non-violent, as “terrorists” it is understandable that there is not more outrage in the West over an attack by Uighur separatists in southern China who stabbed to death at least 29 people in a railroad station and wounded perhaps 100 more. That’s understandable, but wrong.

Let us grant that China’s policies in Xinjiang, the western province where the Uighurs live, are oppressive, even more so than in the case of the rest of the country. The Han Chinese who dominate the Chinese government have long discriminated against ethnic minorities such as the Uighurs and Tibetans. As the Washington Post notes:

Just as Chinese leaders try to control other religions, including Catholicism and evangelical Christianity, they have issued strict policies for Muslim Uighurs. They must use a state-approved Koran. The government manages mosques. And Uighur men who want government jobs have been forced to shave their beards; women are forbidden to wear headscarves.

When Uighurs try to protest such restrictions, or even agitate for independence for a new state of East Turkestan, the Chinese authorities react with the savagery typical of a police state, locking up dissidents. Little wonder, then, that some Uighurs are resorting to terrorism to fight back. But however understandable the reaction of the extremists, it is also unforgivable. The poor commuters slain in a railway station in Kunming are not responsible for their government’s polices; they are just innocent victims.

There is no cause to kill civilians to make the Uighurs’ case. They would be better off using non-violent protests even if such protests are likely to prove ineffectual against a one-party state. At least such protests will not result in violent retaliation against innocent Uighurs. This is one area where the U.S. can actually sympathize with China and foster better cooperation on what used to be known as the war on terror, while of course being aware of, and resistant to, Beijing’s desire to brand all dissidents with the “terrorist” label.

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Why Won’t Western Churches Condemn Muslim Oppression of Christians?

The news of how Christian communities in Syria are being forced to purchase their lives by signing treaties of submission to jihadi overlords is just one of the more recent reminders of the worsening plight of Christians in the Middle East. This is a subject that struggles to receive much comment from Western leaders, or apparently provoke much serious outrage in the general public. Naturally, Christian groups and media outlets do periodically go through the motions attempting to draw some attention to this matter. Yet among some of the liberal churches, the alleged oppression of Palestinian Muslims by the Jewish state seems to keep them far too busy to devote much time to campaign about the genuine oppression of Christians by Muslims.

In some sense, the precarious predicament of Christian communities in the Middle East is somewhat more complicated than it may appear. In both Iraq and Syria, the Baathist regimes co-opted the Christian community into supporting what were already minority-run states. In Syria in particular, it made sense for the Assads’ Alawite minority to enlist the help of Christian communities in maintaining power over the Sunni majority. The disintegration of these regimes has naturally left Christians exposed to the resentments of the wider populace. Nevertheless, the most extreme and sustained violence against the region’s Christian minorities is primarily coming from radicalized and emboldened Islamist terror groups. From the Copts in Egypt, to the Christians under Hamas in Gaza, to the state-sanctioned oppression in Iran, to the sporadic attacks on Christians in Pakistan, the same extremist Islamic forces are at work.

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The news of how Christian communities in Syria are being forced to purchase their lives by signing treaties of submission to jihadi overlords is just one of the more recent reminders of the worsening plight of Christians in the Middle East. This is a subject that struggles to receive much comment from Western leaders, or apparently provoke much serious outrage in the general public. Naturally, Christian groups and media outlets do periodically go through the motions attempting to draw some attention to this matter. Yet among some of the liberal churches, the alleged oppression of Palestinian Muslims by the Jewish state seems to keep them far too busy to devote much time to campaign about the genuine oppression of Christians by Muslims.

In some sense, the precarious predicament of Christian communities in the Middle East is somewhat more complicated than it may appear. In both Iraq and Syria, the Baathist regimes co-opted the Christian community into supporting what were already minority-run states. In Syria in particular, it made sense for the Assads’ Alawite minority to enlist the help of Christian communities in maintaining power over the Sunni majority. The disintegration of these regimes has naturally left Christians exposed to the resentments of the wider populace. Nevertheless, the most extreme and sustained violence against the region’s Christian minorities is primarily coming from radicalized and emboldened Islamist terror groups. From the Copts in Egypt, to the Christians under Hamas in Gaza, to the state-sanctioned oppression in Iran, to the sporadic attacks on Christians in Pakistan, the same extremist Islamic forces are at work.

The latest events in Syria specifically concern the Christian communities in the province of Raqqa, which is currently under the control of the militia forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an Islamist group which claims association with al-Qaeda. There the leaders of the community faced either forced conversion to Islam or death if they did not agree to sign a treaty of submission, which forbids them from practicing their faith openly. By imposing this treaty ISIS is following orthodox Sharia practices, which compel Christians in Islamic society to live in a subservient state of dhimmitude. Nor was the convert-or-die threat an empty one. In the past year alone, 1,213 Christians were murdered in Syria in what were recorded as killings motivated by the victims’ religion.

All of which, one might have thought, would be of great concern to churches in the West. Clearly many of these congregations have a strong sense of social conscience and are no strangers to activism and campaigning. Yet, in the case of several of the liberal churches, the campaign of choice is not one to support their beleaguered and persecuted coreligionists in the Islamic world; instead they have set upon the campaign to demonize the Jewish state, incidentally the only place in the entire Middle East where the number of Christians is actually growing.

As Jonathan Tobin has written about here, the Presbyterian Church USA has not only seen attempts to pass boycott motions within the church, but most recently the Presbyterians’ Israel Palestinian Mission Network has released a study guide that is fiercely anti-Zionist. Similarly, the Methodist Church in Britain has witnessed an ongoing controversy over its moves to issue a boycott of Israel. And of particular prominence this year was the move by St James’s Church in London to mark the Christmas festivities by erecting a graffiti-covered 26-foot-high replica of Israel’s security barrier. Reportedly this stunt cost the congregation over $50,000. Presumably no more worthy or needy cause could be thought of at the time.

While both Malcolm Hoenlein, the long-serving head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks have both publicly expressed outrage at the persecution of the Middle East’s Christians and called for action to prevent its continuation, it seems that the same passions have not been stirred among certain liberal Christian congregations in the West. Apparently they reserve their sense of righteous indignation primarily for expressing opposition to the Jewish state’s efforts to defend its civilians from Islamic terrorism.  

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Rand Paul and the War on Christians

Senator Rand Paul may be the leading advocate of a new isolationism in American foreign policy but he sounded an appropriate note of alarm over the weekend when he decried a worldwide war on Christianity at the Values Voter Summit. Noting the vast upsurge in attacks on Christians throughout the Muslim world, Paul rightly blamed “a fanatical element of Islam,” rather than all adherents of the faith. But he also made it clear that this upsurge in violence is not the product of a tiny outlier minority but of an international movement of Islamists who number in the tens of millions.

Paul said the primary responsibility to deal with this problem rests with moderate, peaceful Muslims and he’s right about that. However, it is impossible to separate this religious conflict from the broader terrorist aims of Islamists rendering his call to action on this issue at odds with his other foreign policy stands in which he favors what would in effect be an American withdrawal from a forward policy against these forces. But I’ll leave my fervent disagreements with his worldview that constitutes a genuine threat to a viable U.S. foreign and defense policy aside for the moment. Let’s give him credit for speaking up on an issue of grave concern that most politicians ignore and which most of the foreign policy establishment has been actively seeking to bury. Even more important, let’s address some of the criticism he has been receiving over this speech from some liberals as well as those who claim to speak for American Muslims. Whatever the political motivations for Paul’s speech (one suspects he is trying to woo Evangelicals who dislike his cool attitude toward Israel), those who deny this problem or, even worse, try to depict anyone who calls attention to Muslim intolerance as a bigot, are doing neither Islam nor Muslims any good.

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Senator Rand Paul may be the leading advocate of a new isolationism in American foreign policy but he sounded an appropriate note of alarm over the weekend when he decried a worldwide war on Christianity at the Values Voter Summit. Noting the vast upsurge in attacks on Christians throughout the Muslim world, Paul rightly blamed “a fanatical element of Islam,” rather than all adherents of the faith. But he also made it clear that this upsurge in violence is not the product of a tiny outlier minority but of an international movement of Islamists who number in the tens of millions.

Paul said the primary responsibility to deal with this problem rests with moderate, peaceful Muslims and he’s right about that. However, it is impossible to separate this religious conflict from the broader terrorist aims of Islamists rendering his call to action on this issue at odds with his other foreign policy stands in which he favors what would in effect be an American withdrawal from a forward policy against these forces. But I’ll leave my fervent disagreements with his worldview that constitutes a genuine threat to a viable U.S. foreign and defense policy aside for the moment. Let’s give him credit for speaking up on an issue of grave concern that most politicians ignore and which most of the foreign policy establishment has been actively seeking to bury. Even more important, let’s address some of the criticism he has been receiving over this speech from some liberals as well as those who claim to speak for American Muslims. Whatever the political motivations for Paul’s speech (one suspects he is trying to woo Evangelicals who dislike his cool attitude toward Israel), those who deny this problem or, even worse, try to depict anyone who calls attention to Muslim intolerance as a bigot, are doing neither Islam nor Muslims any good.

One such example comes in today’s Daily Beast from Dean Obeidallah who writes that Paul’s attempt to draw attention to the problem is nothing less than an act of hate speech and even likened it to utterances of Al Qaeda leaders seeking to inflame Muslims against Westerners. He writes:

Paul’s speech is likely a mirror image of one that would be given by an al Qaeda recruiter.  The difference being that an al Qaeda leader would cite isolated bad actions committed by the West and claim these incidents were proof that the West was waging an all out war on Islam.

Let’s be brutally honest: If Rand Paul had given a 19 minute speech listing every bad act committed by Jews anywhere in the world under the guise of “warning” people about Jews, he would rightfully be dubbed an Anti-Semite.  Or if Paul had given a similar speech setting forth a litany of crimes committed by African-Americans in the US as defining that race, he would be deemed a racist.

The problem with this formulation is not just that, for all of his faults, there isn’t the slightest comparison between Paul and a terrorist movement. It’s that treating a worldwide upsurge in anti-Christian violence as merely the acts of a few random malefactors is an act of brazen denial that is divorced by the reality of the Muslim world.

Let me brutally honest in reply to Obeidallah. If Jews were committing violence against Christians or Muslims around the world on the scale that Muslims are doing against non-Muslims, and if a branch of Judaism that could call on the support of a substantial plurality if not the majority of most Jews in many countries were using faith to justify terrorism or to wage war against all non-Jews, such a statement would be justified.

But, of course, we know just the opposite is true. The Muslim world is the driving force behind the international upsurge of anti-Semitism in which hatred for the state of Israel is used as a thinly veiled cover for traditional Jew hatred. The one Jewish state on the planet may have its faults but its Muslims citizens are equal before the law, something that cannot be said of those nations with a Muslim majority. And please don’t waste our time citing puppets like the intimidated remnant of Iranian Jewry as an example of Islamist tolerance or democratic Israel’s attempts to defend itself against a war fought by those who seek to destroy it as an analogy to al-Qaeda.

Radical Islam is a threat not just because of its vicious nature but because it can draw on the support of a large body of Muslim opinion and a long tradition of jihadist warfare against non-believers. The reason why there are virtually no Jews left in Muslim countries and an embattled, discriminated against remnant of Christians there is not due to the actions of outliers who can be easily disowned but a culture and a political system that regards such people as Dhimmi who can be abused with impunity.

What is really troubling about the debate about Paul’s speech is the way that purveyors of the myth of the post-9/11 backlash against Muslims will use it to justify their attempt to impose a new political correctness on discussions of Islamism. To listen to groups like CAIR, a group that masquerades as a defender of civil rights but which was founded as a political front for Hamas fundraisers, to even speak of terrorism or of Islamist violence against non-believers offends the sensibilities of Muslims. In so doing, they seek to effectively silence critiques of American Islamists and to stifle investigations of homegrown terrorism. To this end, they’ve largely succeeded in convincing most of the media that Islamists are more sinned against than they are culpable. Every time an act of Islam-inspired terror occurs, the reflex action of both the government and the media is to deny that religion plays any role in the crime even when we know that it has done so.

Discrimination or prejudice against Muslims is as hateful as that aimed against Jews or Christians. But what those who would damn Paul as a bigot for his speech are doing is, despite their disclaimers, to deny the reality of Islamist hate and to silence those who wish to bring attention to crimes that should outrage all Americans. American Christians should heed Paul’s speech (at least on this topic) and treat religious persecution of non-Muslims as an important issue. And they should ignore those who seek to distract us from the reality of mainstream Muslim intolerance.

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Outrage Lacking on Religious Persecution

The news today from Egypt ought to send a shiver down the spines of all Americans. The protests of millions of Egyptians against the Brotherhood and their leader Mohamed Morsi backed up by the military may have derailed the attempt to transform Egypt into an Islamist state. But the Brotherhood is, as should have been expected, far from finished. The prospect of a counter-revolt or even a long-term Islamist insurgency should not be discounted. But whether or not the Brotherhood can find a way to counter the efforts of the military as well as secular and liberal Egyptians to keep them out of power, the Islamist group is lashing out at a familiar scapegoat: the country’s Christian minority.

As the New York Times reports this afternoon, the Coptic community is bearing the brunt of the Brotherhood’s resentment about the reversal of fortune in Cairo:

Since Mr. Morsi’s ouster on July 3, the activists say, a priest has been shot dead in the street, Islamists have painted black X’s on Christian shops to mark them for arson and angry mobs have attacked churches and besieged Christians in their homes. Four Christians were reported slaughtered with knives and machetes in one village last week.

The attacks have hit across the country, in the northern Sinai Peninsula, in a resort town on the Mediterranean coast, in Port Said along the Suez Canal and in isolated villages in upper Egypt.

Given the way Christians were increasingly targeted for violence—including an attack on their main cathedral—while Morsi was in power, it is hardly surprising that a movement that is determined to squelch all opposition to the creation of a purely theocratic state would focus their attention on the Copts. But while we would hope that the military—which has often been slow to protect Christians—will crack down hard on these outbreaks, these incidents should also prompt not only a strong response from President Obama but also outrage from Americans. Unfortunately, as weak as the administration’s response to events in Egypt has been, there’s also no sign that this apathy toward the fate of religious minorities in the Middle East is something that most Americans care about.

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The news today from Egypt ought to send a shiver down the spines of all Americans. The protests of millions of Egyptians against the Brotherhood and their leader Mohamed Morsi backed up by the military may have derailed the attempt to transform Egypt into an Islamist state. But the Brotherhood is, as should have been expected, far from finished. The prospect of a counter-revolt or even a long-term Islamist insurgency should not be discounted. But whether or not the Brotherhood can find a way to counter the efforts of the military as well as secular and liberal Egyptians to keep them out of power, the Islamist group is lashing out at a familiar scapegoat: the country’s Christian minority.

As the New York Times reports this afternoon, the Coptic community is bearing the brunt of the Brotherhood’s resentment about the reversal of fortune in Cairo:

Since Mr. Morsi’s ouster on July 3, the activists say, a priest has been shot dead in the street, Islamists have painted black X’s on Christian shops to mark them for arson and angry mobs have attacked churches and besieged Christians in their homes. Four Christians were reported slaughtered with knives and machetes in one village last week.

The attacks have hit across the country, in the northern Sinai Peninsula, in a resort town on the Mediterranean coast, in Port Said along the Suez Canal and in isolated villages in upper Egypt.

Given the way Christians were increasingly targeted for violence—including an attack on their main cathedral—while Morsi was in power, it is hardly surprising that a movement that is determined to squelch all opposition to the creation of a purely theocratic state would focus their attention on the Copts. But while we would hope that the military—which has often been slow to protect Christians—will crack down hard on these outbreaks, these incidents should also prompt not only a strong response from President Obama but also outrage from Americans. Unfortunately, as weak as the administration’s response to events in Egypt has been, there’s also no sign that this apathy toward the fate of religious minorities in the Middle East is something that most Americans care about.

It’s a shocking yet all-but-inarguable truth that the rest of the world has been largely content to stand by indifferently as Muslim extremists have targeted religious minorities throughout the Middle East. All too many Western Christians seem to consider their co-religionists to be strictly on their own when it comes to dealing with Islamists.

As New York’s Catholic leader, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, wrote last month in the New York Daily News:

Religious persecution isn’t just something from the history books. The early 21st century will go down as an age of martyrs, and the situation is only getting worse. It’s hard to believe, but today, more than a billion people live under governments that suppress religious liberty.

In many nations, the lack of religious freedom is a matter of life and death. Believers and non-believers alike suffer as a result of intolerance.

The news is grim. Two Orthodox archbishops on a mission of mercy are kidnapped in Syria. The ancient Christian community of Iraq is alarmingly reduced in the wake of the war. Blasphemy laws in Pakistan are used to intimidate Christians and other religious minorities with the death penalty. And churches are bombed in Nigeria on Christmas and Easter. Shockingly, some 150,000 Christians are killed for their faith each year.

The United States has paid lip service to this issue with a Commission on International Religious Persecution that issues reports, but the gap between rhetoric and policy has often been lacking. The problem isn’t that we don’t know what’s going on so much as the general lack of interest in prioritizing this issue.

That must change.

What is needed is not so much a new set of policy pronouncements but a genuine sense of anger on the part of Americans about the possibility that ten percent of Egypt’s population will be subjected to pogroms. Rather than the chattering classes worrying about the deposition of Morsi being a blow to the cause of Egyptian democracy—a ridiculous charge since there was nothing democratic about the way the Brotherhood went about consolidating power since Morsi’s election—the question of the safety of religious minorities ought to be our top concern. If that fails to materialize, the Islamists will have been sent a message to the effect that the West doesn’t care about religious persecution. No one should pretend that such silence wouldn’t constitute complicity in what will follow.

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Nadarkhani Released, but Iranian Christians Still Persecuted

After nearly three years of incarceration in an Iranian jail, where he awaited a death sentence for the charge of apostasy, Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani was finally released earlier today. The American Center for Law and Justice, an advocacy group that has done extraordinary work in raising Nadarkhani’s profile in the U.S. and internationally, published a photograph of the pastor emerging from the gates of the notorious Lakan prison in the north of Iran. As Nadarkhani’s children greeted him with flowers, he wore the bewildered smile of someone who can’t quite believe that his luck has suddenly changed.

The Iranian regime’s apologists in the United States, among them Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council, and Hillary Mann Leverett, a former Clinton administration advisor, will certainly trumpet Nadarkhani’s release as proof that Tehran is amenable to outside overtures. That is why we should remember, before we get too carried away with the image of a kinder, softer Iran, that Nadarkhani is not the only Christian who has been imprisoned for his beliefs.

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After nearly three years of incarceration in an Iranian jail, where he awaited a death sentence for the charge of apostasy, Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani was finally released earlier today. The American Center for Law and Justice, an advocacy group that has done extraordinary work in raising Nadarkhani’s profile in the U.S. and internationally, published a photograph of the pastor emerging from the gates of the notorious Lakan prison in the north of Iran. As Nadarkhani’s children greeted him with flowers, he wore the bewildered smile of someone who can’t quite believe that his luck has suddenly changed.

The Iranian regime’s apologists in the United States, among them Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council, and Hillary Mann Leverett, a former Clinton administration advisor, will certainly trumpet Nadarkhani’s release as proof that Tehran is amenable to outside overtures. That is why we should remember, before we get too carried away with the image of a kinder, softer Iran, that Nadarkhani is not the only Christian who has been imprisoned for his beliefs.

Moreover, Nadarkhani was not exonerated. One of the Christian activists who has been monitoring his plight explained to me that while the apostasy charge was dismissed, the lesser charge of engaging in evangelical activities was upheld. As a consequence, the court sentenced Nadarkhani to three years in prison. Since he had already served two years and eleven months, the judge agreed to his release, on the condition that he paid a fine in lieu of the outstanding month.

Nadarkhani complied, and is now tasting an approximation of freedom–as long as he remains in Iran, the authorities will be observing his every step. Meanwhile, other Iranian Christian leaders still languish in jail.

Among their number is Pastor Behnam Irani, like Nadarkhani a former Muslim who embraced Christianity. Irani is serving a five-year sentence for allegedly undertaking missionary work, a charge that carries with it the possibility of a death sentence for apostasy–exactly the fate that Nadarkhani was facing until a few hours ago. Throughout his time in jail, reports have regularly surfaced of the torture and beatings meted out to Irani. As the Christian Post reported at the end of August:

The pastor had been found several times unconscious in his prison cell when visited, raising fears for his well-being. A hospital examination had discovered that he was suffering from a bleeding ulcer, and officials had claimed that he would be provided with more care–but so far, that hasn’t happened.

“Pastor Behnam Irani has a blood infection and he might be sent to a hospital for surgery…[They] may remove part of his intestines, which are [the] source of infection,” Firouz Khandjani (a member of the Church of Iran,) had said at the time.

“However despite earlier promises nothing has been done,” he said most recently.

There is also the case of Pastor Farshid Fathi, another convert from Islam to Christianity, who is serving a six year sentence in Evin prison, Tehran’s version of the Lubyanka. Iranian dissidents say that Fathi is currently being held in Ward 350 of the prison, where many inmates previously subjected to torture are relocated in relatively more benign conditions. (For a detailed description of how Evin is organized, read the account of the Iranian journalist, Saeed Pourheydar, here.)

As I wrote in July, these and similar cases are part of a long-established pattern of persecution that dates back at least to 1990, when Pastor Hussein Soodman was executed for refusing to recant his Christian faith. Nadarkhani’s welcome release should therefore be understood as the exception, not the rule. Moreover, timing is everything; when Canada cut relations with Iran yesterday, Foreign Minister John Baird called out the regime as being “one of the world’s worst violators of human rights.” In releasing Nadarkhani one day later, the mullahs are trying to prove Baird wrong, a sly trick that only the gullible will fall for.

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