By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)– Iranian Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani learns early next week whether he will be executed for refusing to recant his faith in Jesus Christ and return to Islam, as the court needs more time to consult with the country’s leadership, trial observers told BosNewsLife Thursday, October 6.
“We have been informed that the verdict is to be delivered on Monday, October 10,” said Jason DeMars, director of advocacy group Present Truth Ministries (PTM), which assists the pastor.
“There is speculation that the delay is a sign that the judges have decided to consult with key religious and political leaders,” including Iran’s “Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,” he told BosNewsLife.
On Wednesday, October 5, unidentified Iranian officials from Tehran reportedly interviewed the pastor in prison about the behavior of judges and charges against him.
“While it seems like a positive development, some observers are concerned that they could manipulate his words in an attempt to prove their false charges against him,” DeMars explained.
IRAN DENIES APOSTASY
Iran denies that Nadarkhani faces a death sentence for “apostasy”, or abandoning Islam, despite a written court decision monitored by BosNewsLife.
On Saturday, October 1, Deputy Governor of Iran’s Gilan Province, Ali Rezvani, said Nadarhhani is guilty of “security charges” and “running a brothel” but added “his verdict has not been finalized,” Iran’s state-run Press TV network reported.
“This individual is guilty and his crime is not attempting to convert others to Christianity, rather his crimes are of a security nature,” he was quoted as saying.
However Iran’s Supreme Court did not mention security crimes in its recent written verdict seen by BosNewsLife.
In the document, dated June 12, 2011, judges wrote that the pastor “must repent his Christian faith” if proved that he was a practicing Muslim shortly before he converted to Christianity at age 19.
COURT URGES “REPENTANCE”
“If it can be proven that he was a practicing Muslim as an adult and has not repented, the execution will be carried out,” the Supreme Court added.
It also cited observations that “Mr. Nadarkhani has confessed that in his heart and in his actions he has denied being Muslim and converted to Christianity and has advertised and encouraged other Muslims to convert to Christianity.”
The court said “because of advertising” and “pastoring a church” he “repeatedly professed his Christian faith and denied the prophet Mohammad and the 12th Imam and denied the entire Koran and [the] truth of the Koran,” deemed a holy book by Muslims.
Judges asked a lower court in Gilan Province, that earlier sentenced him to death, to re-examine the case, but Press TV reported that no decision has yet been made about the death sentence.
“There has been no execution order. No conviction at all has been issued yet and it is up to the court to finally decide the verdict after studying his case,” it quoted Gilan Province Judiciary Chief Mohammad-Javad Heshmati as saying Wednesday, October 5.
ARREST WARRENT ISSUED
Nadarkhani “has been charged with a crime and is in a prison based on an arrest warrant issued against him,” he added.
Trial observers have suggested that Iranian officials are trying to add new charges to execute the pastor following an international outcry about the apostasy charges.
De Mars said Deputy Governor Ali Rezvani has described the pastor as a “Zionist”. The governor, he said, “is a hardliner and has shown that he is an enemy of Christians. According to some, Mr. Rezvani is the individual who pressured the judiciary to bring these charges against brother Youcef.”
There is mounting worldwide pressure on Iran to release Pastor Nadarkhani, who leads a 400-person Church of Iran congregation.
IRAN “REFUTES” ALLEGATIONS
Press TV, viewed as a mouthpiece of the government, said Iran “has firmly refuted Western allegations of violating human rights” insisting that “Nadarkhani has a history of committing violent crimes and that he has never received a death penalty for his religious preference.”
The network condemned what it called “Western media” who “manipulated the case of Nadarkhani, a convicted rapist and extortionist in Gilan Province.”
Press TV said Western media are “waging an anti-Iran publicity campaign by falsely claiming that his criminal conviction is his conversion to Christianity and acting as a ‘priest.'”
The Church of Iran, a major evangelical house church network, has no priests but pastors and elders supervising the congregations.
Iranian Christians and rights activists view Nadarkhani as a symbol of a wider government-crackdown on especially Christian converts in the strict Islamic nation.
Several Christians have been detained and churches raided by security forces in recent months.