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Iran's War on Religious Freedom

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The Iranian regime is in the news again over an alleged terrorist plot on American soil. Back in Iran, the regime's brutality to its own people continues. As Western governments consider how to respond to an ever more reckless and dangerous Iran, what will the West do to protect Iranians who seek to practice their religious faiths without fear of state persecution or murder?

The possible execution of Iranian Christian cleric Youcef Nadarkhani for questioning Islam as the dominant form of religious instruction in Iran reveals a vastly under-reported crackdown that has resulted in the arrests of over 300 Christians since 2010.

The death penalty Nadarkhani could face is the latest in a soul-numbing human rights record that should make every European company doing business with the Iranian regime hope that there will not be an earthly or heavenly day of reckoning.

While Iran's regime, ever creative in brutalizing its people, dropped the "apostasy" charge in response to Western outrage, it accused Nadarkhani of rape and espionage. "His crime is not, as some claim, converting others to Christianity. He is guilty of security-related crimes...[and] is a Zionist," Gholomali Rezvani, the deputy governor of Gilan province told the regime-controlled Fars News Agency.

It is a common practice of Iran's judicial system to manufacture new charges to blunt rising international criticism of its repressive practices. In 2010, an Iranian court in the province of Gilan convicted Nadarkhani and sentenced him for apparently questioning the fairness of state laws compelling his child to learn Islam in school. He was arrested and incarcerated on Oct. 13, 2009. In the past few days, as a possible response to international outrage over the case, Iran's Supreme Court has ordered a new trial at which Nadarkhani once again will face an Iranian judiciary not known for meting out justice.

Nadarkhani, who is in his early 30s, embraced Christianity at the age of 19 and organized an underground church in his hometown of Rasht to hide his religious devotion from a state-orchestrated campaign of anti-Christian repression.

According to Iranian court documents, Nadarkhani "has stated that he is a Christian and no longer Muslim. During many sessions in court in the presence of his attorney and a judge, he has been sentenced to execution by hanging according to article 8 of Tahrir-ol Vasileh." (Tahrir-ol Vasileh is a book authored by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the godfather of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, as a guide for how Muslims should live and behave).

According to Amnesty International, Nadarkhani told the judge at his trial that he would not renounce his faith to save his life: "I am resolute in my faith and Christianity and have no wish to recant."

Mr. Nadarkhani was a priest of a church run out of his home. Dr. Wahied Wahdat-Hagh, an expert on Iranian religious groups at the Brussels-based European Foundation for Democracy, estimates that there are 40,000 members of underground churches in the Iran, adding that some "Christians speak even about 500,000 new converts."

The U.S. State Department's 2010 International Religious Freedom Report notes that Iran is home to 300,000 Christians, most of whom are ethnic Armenians.

Sadly, too many European politicians court Iran's regime and misrepresent the state of religious freedom in Iran. Last October, a cross section of German parliamentarians, ranging from the Social Democrats to the Greens to the Christian Social Union and Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, visited Iran.

During their almost one-week stay in Iran, the German deputies uttered not a single word about Iran's religious repression. Peter Gauweiler, the deputy who headed the parliamentary group, even praised Iran for allowing Christian churches to flourish in the Islamic Republic.

What is to be done?

The U.S., Canada and the European Union must accelerate the pace of designations of Iranian officials involved in human rights abuses, including religious repression. They should impose lifetime travel bans on these Iranian officials instead of the temporary bans that they too often lift when officials travel on government business.

Assets of sanctioned human rights abusers should be immediately seized. Iranian officials travel regularly to Europe and Canada, and are thought to have billions of dollars in assets in European and Canadian banks. Canada is reportedly a favorite destination for Iranian officials' money, as its bank secrecy laws enable them to prevent authorities from tracing and seizing their assets.

The United States and its allies also should see to it that any Iranian official sanctioned for human rights abuses receives more attention than a single press release. Senior government officials should announce human rights sanctions at high-profile press conferences and release photos of the abusers along with details of their crimes. This may help increase the "name and shame" value of these penalties.

It is not too late for Washington and its allies to save Nadarkhani, but they need to move beyond mere outrage and symbolic measures to stop Tehran's assault on the liberty and dignity of the Iranian people.

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