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 ...1