WASHINGTON: The United States on Monday called on Iran to release Christian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who was imprisoned in 2009 and condemned to death for converting from Islam to Christianity.
"Pastor Nadarkhani still faces the threat of execution for simply following his faith, and we repeat our call for Iranian authorities to release him immediately," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.
"Unfortunately, Pastor Nadarkhani is not alone in his suffering. The Iranian regime continues to deny and abuse the human rights of its citizens, in particular those of its many ethnic and religious minorities," it said.
The statement also noted reports of the recent execution of four members of Iran's Arab Ahwazi community, whom it said were put to death "with little due process," as well as "credible reports" that the author Mohammed Soleimani Nia has gone missing after being released from a five-month prison sentence in May.
Nadarkhani, 34, converted from Islam to Christianity at the age of 19 and became pastor of a small evangelical community called the Church of Iran.
He was arrested in October 2009 and condemned to death for apostasy for abandoning his Muslim faith.
Islamic sharia law allows for such verdicts to be overturned if the convicted person "repents" and renounces his conversion, which Nadarkhani has refused to do.
Nadarkhani's conviction was upheld by an appeals court in September 2010, but overturned by Tehran's supreme court, which sent the case back to the lower court in his hometown of Rasht.
The province's vice governor, who is responsible for security and political affairs, has said that Nadarkhani's religious beliefs are not at issue, but that the pastor is "a Zionist, a traitor and has committed security crimes."
Human rights groups fear that he may be executed at any time.
Several other Western countries, including Britain, France, Germany and Poland have also condemned the sentence and called for his release.
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