The White House on Thursday called on Iran to release Youcef Nadarkhani, the 34-year-old pastor who faces execution for refusing to renounce his Christian faith.

"Pastor Nadarkhani has done nothing more than maintain his devout faith, which is a universal right for all people," the statement released by the White House said. "That the Iranian authorities would try to force him to renounce that faith violates the religious values they claim to defend, crosses all bounds of decency, and breaches Iran's own international obligations."

The statement went on to say that a decision to impose the death penalty would only put on display Iran's "utter disregard for religious freedom" and "continuing violation of the universal rights of its citizens."

The US Department of State has already condemned the Iranian judiciary for demanding that Nadarkhani renounce his faith or face execution.

"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," it said this week.

Likewise, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said he "deplored" Nadarkhani's plight.

"This demonstrates the Iranian regime's continued unwillingness to abide by its constitutional and international obligations to respect religious freedom," Hague said. "I pay tribute to the courage shown by Pastor Nadarkhani, who has no case to answer, and call on the Iranian authorities to overturn his sentence."

A member of the Protestant evangelical Church of Iran and the father of two young boys, Nadarkhani held services in underground "home churches" in Rasht, a provincial town about 150 miles (240km) northwest of Tehran, according to The (London) Times.

In 2009, he challenged the regime's insistence that all schools should teach Islam. He was arrested in October that year and has been imprisoned in Rasht ever since. He was sentenced to death for apostasy by a court in Rasht last year.

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