Abby Ohlheiser:  The State Department has weighed in on the case of Iranian Christian pastor, Youcef Nadarkhani, who was arrested in 2009 and sentenced to death for apostasy.  He’d be the first executed for that reason in Iran since 1990.  But this month, the Iranian Supreme Court offered him a way out: they’ve overturned the death penalty sentence, sent the case back to a lower court, and asked the pastor to repent.  The interesting part of the story is how Nadarkhani’s case has become part of an international game of chicken for power.

State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland has said:

While Iran’s leaders hypocritically claim to promote tolerance, they continue to detain, imprison, harass, and abuse those who simply wish to worship the faith of their choosing.

We join the international community in continuing to call on the Iranian government to respect the fundamental rights of all its citizens and uphold its international commitments to protect them.

As Get Religion noted, the story’s not really circulating far beyond the reach of religious or conservative news and opinion sources.  But why?

Well (and I mean to be making no apologies here), one quite significant reason could be the reduction of foreign correspondents among Western news sources and the contraction of international coverage in American press.  But here’s another reason: Stories of Christian persecution are always loaded, and they’re often distributed to the media by loaded sources. This particular story seems to have come from a series of press releases from Christian Solidarity Worldwide (“A voice for the voiceless”), who watch for precisely this sort of persecution. Stories like these are particularly useful for reminding those who are involved in or who care about evangelical work in the Middle East that there is a danger to their work.  Nadarkhani’s persecution justifies their mission.

The story’s been picked up primarily by members of the press who specifically watch for instances of persecution and abuse of Christians in the Middle East (and therefore invested in portraying Muslim governments as intolerant of Christian or Western principles).  So when a story like this comes along — a ruling by the Iranian Supreme Court on freedom of religion that gets the attention of the US Department of State — it’s circulated among those for whom it already has legs, and it tends to stay there.

The consequences of that self-selecting audience? Stories of Christian persecution, well-circulated among those who look for them and speak the same language about what they mean, continue to be an easy point of contention against the perceived bias of the mainstream media. Likewise, once nicely packaged with those sets of assumptions and meanings – placed within a missionary context – the stories, perhaps, become inseparable from their evangelical significance.