Steadfast Guest — After Three Years, Freedom by Pr. Timothy Winterstein
“So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops” (Matthew 10:26-28, ESV).
Evil always likes to hide in the darkness. Until it gains the approval of the majority, or fears no consequences, sin loves dark corners and shadows and the blind spots of human ignorance or apathy. You have to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight, sang Bruce Cockburn. And today the darkness has been bloodied. Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani has been released from prison in Iran, where he has been held for almost three years on charges of apostasy from Islam, as well as evangelizing. On its website, “Present Truth Ministries” quotes a Luther-like Nardakhani in court:
“During one hearing he was told to recant and he responded, ‘You ask me to recant. Recant means to return. What do you wish me to return to? The blasphemy that I was in before Christ?’ The judges responded, ‘To the religion of your ancestors, Islam.’ Youcef replied, ‘I cannot.’”
The effort to get Nadarkhani released seems to have been spearheaded by the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ, obviously not to be confused with the ACLU). This American organization offers legal services when rights, especially religious ones, have been inhibited. The ACLJ was in contact with the U.S. State Department and was instrumental in making people aware of Nadarkhani’s imprisonment (especially through Twitter, with over 3 million people re-tweeting the ACLJ’s “Tweets for Youcef.”)
It is unclear in what tradition or denomination he serves. (Wikipedia says he is a pastor in the Evangelical Church of Iran, which may or may not be the same as the church that belongs to the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. According to Present Truth Ministries, he served a number of house churches.) But what is clear is that social media makes it nearly impossible for this kind of darkness to hide for long. Who knows if we in the U.S. would even have heard of Nadarkhani and the persecution of Iran’s churches if it weren’t for the internet and the way that news spreads there? How often is a news story blown open by someone with a video camera on her phone, or someone who re-tweets a celebrity or politician behaving badly (to wit: Anthony Weiner)? It is almost impossible to hide. Nearly everyone with a cell phone can take a picture or upload a video to Facebook or Twitter, almost instantaneously. The rapidly accelerating speed of communication means that if enough people care, an issue or a problem can go viral on the internet within minutes. If enough people re-tweet or share from Facebook, the newspapers and television anchors are almost forced to cover whatever the hot topic of the moment is. Which makes it all the more strange that as I look at various news sites (the BBC, cnn.com—whose last story is from July 10, The New York Times website), none of them have picked up on the story as of yet (3:45 pm Central on September 8). It is, however, at the top of foxnews.com‘s “Trending Worldwide” stories, and it seems to have been picked up by numerous Christian websites.
There are obviously many angles to this story, including the U.S. relationship with Iran, the question of American dedication to religious freedom around the world, the attempts of Iranian authorities to smear Nadarkhani with charges of rape after the initial charges of apostasy were made known, and others. But the fact is that very little of this would be known to us if the internet and social media were not so prolific. Would the so-called “Arab Spring” demonstrations have succeeded (though how “successful” they have been is open to future scrutiny) without the help of social media? How many more crimes would be covered up if someone did not have the digital evidence? Technology makes it possible to shout from the rooftops (for good or ill) what is whispered in private rooms or government cells. This holds both a promise and a warning for Christians: if enough people shout something on the internet, the authorities intent on suppressing religious freedom will face incredible pressure, and this might, in the long run, help free persecuted Christians like Pastor Nadarkhani. On the other hand, let beware the pastor with pornography on his computer or the teacher who verbally abuses a student; the professor who posts something controversial on the university website or the denominational bureaucracy that tries to slip something past congregational members: there are fewer and fewer places for darkness to hide. The only sure refuge for sinners filled with that darkness is in the open wounds and the empty tomb of Christ. If Christ is enough for a Christian imprisoned for three years in Iran, then He is also enough for us, though we have very little fear of that kind of persecution. Our part may not yet be to suffer physically. Instead, in the Body of Christ, we continue to pray and work, even “Share” and re-tweet, for persecuted brothers and sisters around the world who are still being jailed, beaten, and killed for their witness to the Christ who is Lord of us all.
Pr. Timothy Winterstein
Trinity and St. Paul’s Lutheran Churches, Fisher and Euclid, Minnesota
Associate Editor’s Note: Thanks to Pr. Winterstein for writing this article up for BJS on my request, it is much appreciated. Sometimes we ask certain folks to write articles, sometimes they are submitted. Please feel free to submit an article to us.