Got news? One doomed Iranian pastor (ho hum)

Once again, we find ourselves in the parallel universe of alternative, advocacy, alternative, “conservative news.”

The only problem is that the story in question is worthy of actual mainstream news. There is nothing “conservative” about it, for old-fashioned liberals who are committed to religious liberty and human rights, as defined by the United Nations. Your GetReligionistas would argue that the public would be better served by mainstream coverage of this case.

So what’s the story? Here is an update from a “conservative” website, Independent Catholic News:

An Iranian pastor could be executed if he refuses to give up his faith. Rev Yousef Nadarkhani has twice refused to recant his Christian faith during two court hearings held in Rasht, Gilan Province on 25 and 26 September. Sources close to Christian Solidarity Worldwide indicate that recanting will again be demanded at sessions scheduled for 27 and 28 September, and that if he continues to refuse, he will be executed thereafter.

Pastor Nadarkhani was tried and found guilty of apostasy (abandoning Islam) in September 2010 by the court of appeals in Rasht. The verdict was delivered verbally in court, while written confirmation of the death sentence was received nearly two months later. At the appeal in June 2011, the Supreme Court of Iran upheld Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani’s sentence, but asked the court in Rasht, which issued the initial sentence, to re-examine whether or not he had been a practicing Muslim adult prior to converting to Christianity. The written verdict of the Supreme Court’s decision included provision for annulment of the death sentence if Pastor Nadarkhani recanted his faith.

Following investigation, the court in Rasht has ruled that Pastor Nadarkhani was not a practicing Muslim adult before becoming a Christian. However, the court has decided that he remains guilty of apostasy because he has Muslim ancestry.

Meanwhile, over at the “Religious Right Now” blog at the On Faith site at the Washington Post, we have this crisp piece of dialogue from one of the court proceedings in Iran:

When asked to “repent” by the judges, Youcef stated, “Repent means to return. What should I return to? To the blasphemy that I had before my faith in Christ?”

The judges replied , “To the religion of your ancestors, Islam.”

To which he replied, “I cannot.”

Sadly, this piece of hard news is found in the midst of a blog post that, while backed by numerous links to hard documentation, is written in a rather typical advocacy journalism style. That’s normal, at a conservative weblog — even one hosted by the Post.

My point, once again, is simple: Where is the actual news coverage by the mainstream press? This is a life-or-death issue in a land that is of great concern, these days, to the U.S. government.

The mainstream press is, obviously, highly sensitive about some human-rights issues in Iran. This is what happens — go ahead and click — if you run a Google News search right now for the terms “Iran,” “hikers” and “release.” You remember this story? Here’s a Los Angeles Times update:

In a no-holds-barred statement, two Americans who spent 781 days in an Iranian prison on spying charges called themselves hostages of sour U.S.-Iranian relations and described the screams of prisoners being beaten, the mental manipulation of their jailers, and how they lived in “a world of lies and false hope” until their sudden release last week.

Gone was the diplomacy and the words of gratitude to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that marked the statements from their fellow prisoner Sarah Shourd one year ago, when she was freed after 410 days in prison ahead of companions Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal.

Now, I realize that Americans being jailed in Iran is automatically more newsworthy to American readers than the looming death of a Protestant pastor who dared to leave Islam (even if he had never practiced the faith) and wanted to teach his Christian faith to his own children.

Some human-rights cases are more important than others, these days. I get that, sort of. However, this subject is vitally important for millions of Americans — secular and religious, liberal and conservative — who care about fundamental human rights. It also represents a major turn for the worse IN IRAN. According to the U.S. State Department, this would be the first execution for apostasy there since 1990.

I guess, although this is a painful metaphor, the mainstream press will simply cover Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani when he is dead.

If only he was an American who was hiking, not a blasphemer in Iran.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Dan

    The Iranian pastor is Iranian while the hitchhikers were Americans, and so it not particularly instructive to compare the coverage of the two stories. What would be fair is a comparison of this story with stories about harsh treatment of homosexuals in Muslim countries.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Considering the American mass media’s overall lack of coverage of what Christians suffer around the world under Islam– I suppose it is not surprising for it to seeming to be taking the attitude–”What’s one Protestant minister more or less???”

  • sari

    Dan, Using your logic, the press should completely ignore the issue of genital mutilation in certain Muslim countries. American women are unaffected, even when they hazard to live in those countries, so why bother? Members of the media have no difficulty imposing American standards on other issues, but religion seems to be exempt. That’s not right. A human rights violation is a human rights violation.

  • Bill

    If the media doesn’t get religion, could they possibly get dying for faith?

  • Dan

    Sari, I didn’t say or suggest that the story be ignored. On the contrary, I agree that the story is a shocking violation of religious freedom (and of courageous faith and possible martyrdom) that deserves coverage. The issue I was raising is whether the imprisoned hitchhikers story is analogous and an appropriate basis for comparison when it comes to judging whether the press has under-reported the Iranian pastor story. The hitchhiker story really isn’t analogous — and thus not a fair basis for comparison — because it involves Americans essentially taken hostage and not someone being punished for a belief.

  • Daniel

    “The Iranian pastor is Iranian while the hitchhikers were Americans, and so it not particularly instructive to compare the coverage of the two stories.” Your statement seems to imply that Americans are inherently more valuable than foreign nationals. With this implication I disagree. The journalistic task is to inform and challenge, rather than merely coddling our prejudices and reinforcing our stereotypes. Failure to challenge and inform results in vapid banality that deservedly lowers ratings and cuts circulation.

  • Jerry

    I’m sure people are going to dislike my post, but why emphasize only one evil act by an evil regime. For example, the media is also ignoring the story about the Bahais but I found this link to an Egyptian news source:

    Iran tries seven Bahais for ‘proselytising’

    Then there are other stories about Iran that compete for media attention including their neighbors such as Pakistan and China competing for influence, Iran’s support of the Syrian dictatorship, Russia’s helping them build nuclear plants, Ahmadinejad’s ranting at the United Nations and so forth.

    So this particular evil act is properly being covered by media that focuses on Christianity but I won’t ding the general media for not covering it given everything else that is going on related to Iran.

  • tmatt


    What a strange way to state the obvious. The mainstream press should be covering the Bahai crisis as well. I’ve written about that ongoing tragedy in Iran and I think others should, as well.

    There is no need to pit one group of suffering people against another.

    Who said anything about emphasizing “only one evil act by an evil regime”?

    The most ironic thing about your mini-sermon? I have probably seen more coverage of the persecution of Bahai’s in religious publications, Christian outlets included, than in the mainstream.

    It’s time for improved coverage. Period.

  • Randy McDonald


    “Your statement seems to imply that Americans are inherently more valuable than foreign nationals.”

    The problem with Iran is that there are so many different categories of persecuted groups that it’s easy for a single audience to concentrate on a single sort to the exclusion of others. A blog oriented towards gays and lesbians concentrates on executed teenagers; a blog with a conservative Christian theme reflects concerns for co-religionists; feminists concentrate on women; ethnic diaspora groups relate the problems of their imprisoned co-ethnic in the homeland; and so on.

    There’s nothing wrong with relating sympathy for a group you’re closely connected with, not as such. The problem comes when the group suffering is made into the penultimate victim class, especially when other groups are dismissed for domestic reasons.

    I suspect that the case of the three hikers became so high profile in the US is not only because they’re Americans, but because they seem to be nice, healthy people who committed at most the victimless sin of crossing an unmarked border as they explored the world. America is divided, but those sorts of victims are guaranteed broad recognition and support across the divided country.

  • tmatt


    What I said to Jerry.

  • Mollie

    There is no question that the imminent execution of a Christian for refusing to renounce his faith is a huge deal for Christians around the world, including those in America.

    But it should also be a huge deal for non-Christians, be they religious or not.

    This is worthy of significantly more coverage by all media. Thanks for the post, tmatt.

  • R. Howell

    I think a more apt comparison is to the breathless and ubiquitous coverage of Saudi women being sentenced to flogging for the crime of driving while female.

    I am unable to think of any sensible yardstick by which that story is much more newsworthy than Nadarkhani’s.

  • Deacon Jim Stagg


    Do you think the increased coverage for the American “children” was due to a closer alignment with the views of the US MSM? Reports of their views are discouraging to me, at best.

    With dedicated religionists, of course, there is no MSM desire to identify their troubles; methinks the MSM just doesn’t CARE what happens to them.

  • Randy McDonald


    The practical problem with this, as a dictum for media coverage, is that there are only so many different elements of the Iranian government’s bad policies that can be kept in mind before it blurs. People frequently find it easy to have a single cause; frequently, the single cause is something close to then.

    In _principle_, I don’t object. Was it wrong for American official criticism of the USSR to concentrate so substantially on the rights of Jews to emigrate from the Soviet Union, for instance, even without addressing the arguably worse plight of the Crimean Tatars?

    In principle. I still find it awkward, especially when categories of oppressed are forgotten for domestic reasons. There’s no happy answer.

    R. Howell:

    Any significant movement of Saudi Arabia, a G-20 economy that is squarely in the middle of the Islamic and Arab worlds, the Middle East, et cetera, not only towards representative government but away from gender apartheid is definitely major news.

    Deacon Stagg:

    “Do you think the increased coverage for the American “children” was due to a closer alignment with the views of the US MSM?”

    I’ve no idea. What do you mean? Their denunciation of the regime might be popular, but it’s also accurate so don’t get complaining about that.

    “With dedicated religionists, of course, there is no MSM desire to identify their troubles[.]”

    It may well be the case. Does the evangelical press cover the persecution of gays in Iran on the grounds of their sexual orientation? Blind spots abound everywhere.

  • Randy McDonald

    Mollie, all sorts of persecuted people are worthy of attention, with religious persecution being only one of very many categories. Race, ethnicity, gender, political views, sexual orientation, geography–all are equally valid. All, as I understand it, feature in the Islamic Republic’s program. It’s equal-opportunity that way.

    Question: Is there any reason why, apart from the question being framed for this blog, this poor individual is worthy of more (or less) consideration because of the reason for his persecution?

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Is there any reason why, apart from the question being framed for this blog, this poor individual is worthy of more (or less) consideration because of the reason for his persecution?


    Freedom of religion is a core value of the United States, in the same category as a free press (think: the First Amendment). The execution of anyone anywhere because of his/her religion is profoundly linked to this country and ought to be of interest.

    In any case, coverage of the “Irvine 11″ as religious persecution sets a precedent which ought to point toward the much more serious case of religious persecution involving capital punishment.

  • tmatt

    Does the evangelical press cover the persecution of gays in Iran on the grounds of their sexual orientation?

    Why are we discussing the evangelical press? I have referred to the religious/conservative press, but have not focused on any one sector of it.

    As a matter of fact, the persecution of GLBTs in Iran has received significant coverage in the so-called “conservative” outlets. It is also covered, as it should be, in the mainstream press.

    Our “Got news?” posts focus on important stories that, for some strange reason, the MSM have missed.

    So, Randy, are you arguing for less coverage of persecuted people in general? Are you making a case for avoiding coverage of persecuted religious believers or only certain ones?

  • NefariousNewt

    It has been a long-standing and shameful practice in America to give little thought to people outside the Euro-American sphere of influence, especially where they are in majority-Islamic countries or the Africa or Asian continent. Here is a man, too, like Troy Davis, about to be executed under false pretenses (apostasy), by a government harboring a grudge against a particular minority (Christians). But then, Christians being “fed to the lions” is not particularly new news and is certainly not going to generate the ratings the “news” agencies are looking for.

    Pastor Nadarkhani has the unfortunate problem of being a foreign-born, dark-skinned man in a Middle Eastern nation, and that is not the kind of person the vast majority of American “Christians” is liable to be outraged for, even though to not be is a direct contravention of the faith of their savior, Jesus Christ.

  • JR

    NefariousNewt–I’m an American Christian. I’m outraged.

  • Gee

    Dan, the American hitchhikers were not taken hostage. They were stupidly walking near the Iranian border and strayed over – Iran was perfectly within its right to detain them. Doesn’t mean it had the right to hold them as long as it did, or to try them without due process, but it was reasonable to arrest them for entering Iranian territory.

    On the story itself, it is horrendous. We had a young Iranian man in our church congregation a couple of years ago, who told me he had fled Iran because he feared for his life because he had converted to Christianity. This brings home to me the reality of his situation. How can Iran ever claim to be a just society if it is prepared to execute people for their religious beliefs?

  • Jo Siedlecka

    I was amused to see that you describe my website as conservative. I think if you read it a bit more often you will see we have our progressive moments, reporting on campaigns against your death penalty, supporters of Palestine’s bid for UN membership etc. And over here in England the story of the Iranian pastor is in mainstream news.
    Kind regards Jo Siedlecka Independent Catholic News

  • Elderjames

    I know that our church was praying for this pastor, family, and those connected to him, last night. As well this morning there are many teling his story on Facebook.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts in this blog.

    We should all be concerned for any oppressed person and groups of people.

    Just my thoughts.

  • Ken E

    I am a Christian and an American. I spent 2 years in Iran in the 1970′s. This type of persecution in Iran today is outrageous. It is in violation of UN International Covenants and Iran’s own constitution. (read ‘The facts’ here: ), not to mention the warning Jesus issued to the nations, recorded in Matthew 25: 31-46.
    If you are an American citizen and want to make an appeal on Yousef Nadarkhani’s behalf, I believe you can contact Ambassador Shahid Mousavi @ . As the US and Iran currently have no diplomatic relations, our interests are handled by the Foreign Interests Section of the Swiss Embassy.

  • Politics Matters

    On the subject of advocacy journalism, Bob Gibson, Executive Director of the University of Virginia’s Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership, recently said: “Advocacy journalism can be a very valuable thing: people with a cause, people who want to change the world, people who want to take the country in a different direction. And there is more of that. There are more organizations that are doing long-term investigative reporting and generally they do buy into advocacy journalism. There are others that are forming that are taking the traditional tact of pursuing the truth wherever it leads, without a preordained direction, and we tend to trust those, I think, a little bit more because they have a track record—the good ones—of being balanced.” (Gibson appeared on the Charlottesville, VA, politics interview program Politics Matters with host and producer Jan Madeleine Paynter discussing journalism

  • BK

    This is a good discussion thread, and I have appreciated reading the thoughts expressed here. That we are talking about the MSM ignoring religious persecution in no way diminishes the fact that they also ignore other forms of persecution, but it’s good that someone brings that out. The American MSM has always ignored persecution of Christians as it usually ignores anything the MSM thinks won’t help its political agenda. I am Christian and American, and I am outraged over Iran’s continuing evil. My friend, a pastor in Kenya, was beaten and left for dead by Muslims years ago. He would have been just as badly hurt if they hadn’t been Muslims. But in 30 years of Christian service, only Muslims extremists tried to kill him. Thankfully, he lived. A missionary from our church had to hide in the jungle while visiting a small church in the Phillipines in the 1990′s. Muslim extremists were holding a war on the church lawn. Somali anarchists have vowed to “rid” Somalia of Christians. The massacres in Darfur were largely against Christians. It is difficult to get a handle on how broad is religious persecution in Muslim countries, and not just against Christians, when it is not properly covered in the media. More Christians were martyred in the 20th century than in the 19 before, but where did you read about that? Martyrs are not all Christian, just as all thought-police are not Muslim. Google the name, Graham Staines, a Christian missionary, with his two young sons, was burned alive by Hindus for bringing food and assistance to the poor. And the Israelis frequently bombed over the years — they are persecuted now just as they were in WWII. is an advocate for those in peril, specifically Christian, but there are advocates for Jews in peril and ba’hais and women and so on. If it were not for advocacy journalism, these stories would stay buried in the AP/UPI/NBC/CBS/ABC trash cans, and good folks like you would not be stepping up to oppose it. Somebody has to get these stories out, and it won’t be American MSM unless everyone else is shouting it out. It’s on my fb (and I still have friends), and I appreciate this opportunity to shout a little here, too. Please pray for those in peril. BTW, I like your website.

  • John Baker

    BK noted:

    The MSM “usually ignores anything the MSM thinks won’t help its political agenda.”

    This is absolutely the case and it is exactly what Radio Moscow did back in the days of the communist regime. With regard to Yousef Nadarkhani they shy away for a number of reasons.

    1) It’s dangerous to mock Islamic nuts.

    2) They generally do not understand the religious point of view and are to stupid and unimaginative to admit it.

    3) Stories like this make it clear that western enlightenment concepts like freedom of, (and from), religion are inherently superior to the medieval nonsense that preceded it and post modern, “it’s all relative,” garbage that came after.

    4) Finally modern journalists, especially in the US, rarely come from the “educated classes.” And by educated I mean the hard sciences and mathematics.

    It used to be that those that couldn’t became teachers now they become journalists.