msnbc.com
updated 9/28/2011 6:31:42 PM ET 2011-09-28T22:31:42

Iran is drawing widespread criticism over reports that an Iranian pastor faces execution for refusing to recant his Christian faith and return to Islam.

House Speaker John Boehner issued a statement Wednesday asking Iran to spare Yusef Nadarkhani's life.

"I urge Iran's leaders to abandon this dark path, spare Yusef Nadarkhani's life, and grant him a full and unconditional release," said Boehner, an Ohio Republican.

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"Religious freedom is a universal human right," Boehner said. He said that the prospects that Nadarkhani could be executed "unless he disavows his Christian faith are distressing for people of every country and creed.

"While Iran's government claims to promote tolerance, it continues to imprison many of its people because of their faith. This goes beyond the law to an issue of fundamental respect for human dignity," said Boehner.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he "deplored" the reports of the pastor's sentence. He urged the Iranian government to respect its international human rights commitments and overturn the ruling.

Nadarkhani, in his early 30s, converted from Islam to Christianity at 19 and then became a pastor of a small evangelical congregation called the Church of Iran, AFP reported.

He was arrested in 2009 and condemned to death for apostasy under strict Islamic Sharia laws, which do allow for such verdicts to be overturned if the convicted person "repents" and renounces his conversion.

His conviction was upheld by an appeals court in Gilan province in September 2010, so Nadarkhani turned to the supreme court. His wife, who was initially sentenced to life imprisonment, was released on appeal.

In July, Nadarkhani's lawyer told AFP that Iran's supreme court had revoked the death sentence and sent the case back to the court in his hometown of Rasht.

New reports, primarily in the Christian press, said a provincial court in Gilan had again sentenced him to death.

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