EU Welcomes Iran Releasing Christian Pastor On Death Row

The European Union has welcomed an Iranian court decision to release Christian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who was sentenced to death for "apostasy" or abandoning Islam.

Although the court in the northern Iranian city of Rasht charged Nadarkhani with evangelizing Muslims over the weekend after acquitting him of the apostasy charges, it ordered the pastor's release from prison noting that he had already served out his prison sentence.

The development came nearly three years after Nadarkhani was handed down death sentence for his conversion from Islam to Christianity, which rights groups insisted was in clear violation of Iran's international human rights commitments.

In a statement on Tuesday, EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton welcomed "the acquittal and subsequent release, on 8 September 2012, of Pastor Nadarkhani, after three years of incarceration," pointing out that the European bloc had been "constantly advocating his release to the Iranian authorities since his arrest."

Ashton also called for "the respect of freedom of religion and belief in Iran in line with its international obligations and hopes that this positive development will serve as an example for other similar cases."

Earlier, the United States had welcomed reports about Nadarkhani's release, with the State Department noting in a statement on Monday that "the status of religious freedom in Iran" remains grave despite the pastor's release.

It said many more Iranians remain in prison and face persecution simply because of their faith, and called for the immediate release of more than 100 Baha'is and members of the Sunni Muslim, Zoroastrians, and Gonabadi Dervish communities who suffer in confinement.

The United States also pledged that it would continue to stand with the people of Iran who struggle to have their fundamental human rights respected. Incidentally, Iran has not carried out any execution for apostasy since 1990.

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