While facing the prospect of a hangman's noose, Iranian pastor and convert Youcef Nadarkhani has become a worldwide cause célèbre. A former Muslim imprisoned for criticizing mandatory Islamic education, he faces a death sentence for refusing to recant his faith; his supporters now stretch from the United States Congress to the European Union to Brazil.
However, long before a Twitter advocacy campaign surpassed 1.3 million tweets this spring, online critics emerged of Nadarkhani's status as the new face of Christian persecution. They primarily cited his denomination's support for Oneness Pentecostal evangelist William Branham, who denied the Trinity.
The theology question is not irrelevant. Religious-freedom groups are reluctant to discuss their marketing strategies, but acknowledge that a subject's orthodoxy does help form a connection with donors and advocates.
"It is somewhat more difficult to raise funds for someone who is not a Christian in the way most Americans would define that," said Carl Moeller, president and CEO of Open Doors USA.
Moeller and other religious-freedom leaders are split on whether Nadarkhani is an orthodox or heretical Christian. But they all affirm that his situation merits advocacy regardless.
"We've used [Nadarkhani] as a bellwether for what's happening to hundreds of people in Iran," said Moeller. "For us, the issue of faith is not a theological one. We're not involved in supporting people or advocating for their freedom only if they believe the right way."
"We believe everyone is equally entitled to human rights, including freedom of religion," said Daniel Hoffman, advocacy and development director for Middle East Concern.
Nadarkani's imprisonment underscores tensions between Iran's Islamic rulers and its growing Christian population. Open Doors places the number of Muslim-background converts in Iran at 370,000, in addition to 80,000 Armenian and Assyrian church members.
However, not all these Christians—as in most countries—fall under the same theological umbrella. Defining orthodox theology is often a tricky endeavor in general, but especially so in the Middle East, said Moeller.
David Yeghnazar, the U.S. director of Elam Ministries—which focuses on Christians in Iran—said the heresy claim against Nadarkhani is valid. However, he said theological fine points should have no bearing on support for anyone facing persecution for believing in Christ.
"We know his views on the Trinity are not orthodox," said Yeghnazar. "But he is still in prison for the name of Jesus."
Todd Nettleton, Voice of the Martyrs' director of media development, called the controversy "touchy" but said his group sides with Nadarkhani's advocates.
"We feel comfortable that he is being persecuted for his Christian faith," he said. "If he was willing to deny Christ, he could go home tomorrow. He has chosen repeatedly not to do that." Regarding the theology of those persecuted, Nettleon said, "For the average American Christian, I don't think they're that worried about it."
The American Center for Law and Justice gathered 191,000 signatures for an online petition before switching to the Twitter initiative in January. Executive director Jordan Sekulow said his group "didn't look into" Nadarkhani's theology, but believes support for him lines up with Christ's imperative to come to the aid of the less fortunate.
"Whether you're helping the poor or helping the persecuted, you're following the message of Matthew 25," he said. "Our hope is that one day [Nadarkhani] is in the place where he can exactly define his faith beliefs."
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Previous Christianity Today coverage of Youcef Nadarkhani's case includes:
Rumors of Imminent Execution of Iranian Pastor Unconfirmed | Lawyers await written confirmation that court issued execution order. (Compass Direct News, February 24, 2012)
Reports: Iran Pastor's Case Sent to Khamenei | Courts avoid decision in apostasy case, may hear further appeal. (October 12, 2011)
From Death Sentence to Rape Charges, Iranian Pastor's Case Is Rare—and Disputed | Reports differ on Nadarkhani's status and next steps. (October 6, 2011)
Iranian Pastor Refuses to Recant in Face of Pending Execution | White House condemns Nadarkhani's conviction. (Liveblog, September 28, 2011)
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