If you’ve been following religious news lately, you probably have already heard the startling news that a Christian pastor in Iran that had previously been sentenced to death for his religious faith has now been released. If you haven’t heard, here’s a brief recap: Youcef Nadarkhani is an Iranian man who converted to Christianity at age 19. Today, at age 34, he is a married father of two and an active Christian minister in his home city of Rasht. In 2009, he was arrested for “apostasy” and accused of trying to evangelize Muslims about the Christian faith, a serious crime in Iran where Islam is the state religion. So what actions did he take to “evangelize” the locals? Apparently, he called into question the Muslim monopoly on religious education of children, which he felt was unconstitutional, and that was enough to get him arrested, sentenced to death, and imprisoned for three years. This past week, a judge finally overruled his earlier sentence and acquitted him of apostasy. His conviction for evangelization stood, but he sentenced to time already served, and released to go home to family. The fact this happened in a country where Islamic law has absolute authority is remarkable in itself, but what’s even more remarkable is something even some of the staunchest Christian supporters of Nadarkhani might have overlooked – his imprisonment ended on September 8th, the universal feast day in Christianity for the birth of the Virgin Mary. Is it mere coincidence?
Long before his release, Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani had a wide range of supporters across the political spectrum. President Barack Obama, EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton and the governments of Germany, Britain and France, had all called on the Iranian government to release Nadarkhani. Nearly three million people had voiced support for Nadarkhani on Twitter, and the American Center for Law and Justice, which focuses on constitutional and human rights law worldwide, had taken up his case. They worked with the U.S. State Dept. to try to spring Nadarkhani free, and the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution earlier this year condemning his imprisonment and calling for his immediate release. Even Amnesty International – often on opposing sides of faithful Catholics and Christian leaders on moral issues – had designated Nadarkhani a prisoner of conscience and urged his immediate release, stating, “It is shocking that the Iranian authorities would even consider killing a man simply for exercising his right to choose a religion other than Islam.”, making their steadfast support of Pastor Youcef the most shocking partnership since the ACLU support Chick-Fil-A’s right to freedom of speech after several Mayors threatened to ban the restaurant because they did not like the owner’s opinions.
However, all of this seemed to be in vain until last week. Iranian law allows the charges to be dropped if the accused recants their actions after being given an opportunity in court to do so. When asked to “repent” by Iranian judges, Youcef asked what they expected him to repent, and he was told he must renounce his belief in Christianity and return “To the religion of your ancestors, Islam.” To which he simply replied, “I cannot.” Pastor Youcef was sentenced to death for apostasy in 2010, a decision that was upheld by the country’s Supreme Court in 2011. Nadarkhani’s attorney was also jailed by Iranian authorities, simply for defending him. After three years, little hope seemed to be in sight. Earlier in the week, it was reported that Nadarkhani may face new, unspecified charges during this Saturday’s hearing, but those never materialized and he was instead released. He is now home with his family after spending 1,062 days in prison for his Christian faith.
Remarkably, these events that unfolded in September 2012 coincided with The Nativity of Blessed Virgin Mary. The date of the feast, September 8, falls exactly nine months after the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, and is accepted universally in Christianity. In other words, it is not just celebrated by Roman Catholics on September 8th, but also among all Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox Churches, Eastern-Rite Catholics, Anglican Churches, etc., (and any other Christian Church that venerates the Virgin Mary) on that same day, September 8th. In short, it is truly a universal, worldwide Christian holy day. So why is the Nativity of Mary often overlooked by Catholics today? It also falls in close proximity to the feast of the Assumption of Mary, an extremely important holy day for Catholics. As such, in modern times, the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary is not celebrated with the same solemnity as the Immaculate Conception. However, it is still considered an instrumental date for Catholics, because without the birth of Mary, she would not have been there to conceive Jesus.
In any case, the timing of all these holy days mean it’s a heavy occasion of prayer for Catholics. In both Chicago and around the globe, there would be numerous times in the last few weeks that Catholics say The Hail Mary prayer, the holy mysteries, as well as various other chaplets and devotionals being said by millions of Christianity. This feast, like that of the Assumption of Mary, originated in Jerusalem, the cradle of Christianity, and is frequently depicted in art, as part of cycles of the Life of the Virgin. Did the Virgin Mary’s intercession help change hearts and minds so that Pastor Youcef won his freedom against all odds? You be the judge.