>Pastor asked to acknowledge Muhammed as “God’s messenger” in exchange for release
>Lawyers summoned to discuss deal
>Nadarkhani still facing execution for abandoning Islam
By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)– Iranian Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani has rejected an offer to be released from prison if he publicly acknowledges Islam’s prophet Mohammed as “a messenger sent by God” well-informed Christians and rights activists said Friday, January 13.
Iranian authorities reportedly summoned lawyers for Pastor Nadarkhani to his home city of Rasht on December 30, to explain the deal. Local officials indicated they would release the pastor if he agreed to make the statement about Mohammed, Christians with close knowledge about the situation explained.
“However, Pastor Nadarkhani has refused to do so, and remains in prison awaiting a final decision on his case,” confirmed advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) in a statement to BosNewsLife.
Christians said the pastor has made clear that making the demanded statement about Muhammed would amount to abandoning his faith in Jesus Christ.
Another source assisting the pastor told BosNewsLife there is concern about the renewed pressure on Nadarkhani, who faces execution for refusing to recant his Christian faith and return to Islam.
“Keep in mind that brother Youcef has not had a Bible the entire two years and about three months that he has been in prison. He has no access to a computer or the outside world other than meeting with his wife and family,” the source said.
Yet, the Christian said that “The Holy Spirit is sustaining him in his faith and endurance”. He added that the 34-year-old pastor, who is married with two children, “is healthy in mind and body and his faith is as strong as ever.”
Pastor Nadarkhani was detained in the city of Rasht in October 2009, while trying to register his Church of Iran home congregation, with hundreds of members in Gilan province.
The Church of Iran has also several other congregations, making it one of the largest house church movements in the country.
In September 2010 he was tried and found guilty of “apostasy”, or abandoning Islam, and sentenced to death by hanging.
After further legal wrangling in 2011, during which the pastor refused to recant his faith to save his own life, his case was eventually referred to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini.
With international pressure mounting, “I think judges would rather release him, but are under pressure by hardliners to execute him,” explained Firouz Khandjani, a council member of the pastor’s Church of Iran. “That’s why the court asked the Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khameini for an opinion so they can say they are not responsible for his execution,” he told BosNewsLife.
CSW said Iran’s latest conditions for his release violates article 23 of the Iranian Constitution, which states that no-one should be molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief.
“Just as the initial conviction of Pastor Nadarkhani is illegal under Iranian law, the recent offer made by the authorities in Rasht is a violation of the Iranian constitution, and of international covenants to which Iran is a signatory that guarantee freedom of religion and freedom to change one’s religion,” said CSW’s Chief Executive, Mervyn Thomas.
He told BosNewsLife that his group has called for his unconditional released and “of all those imprisoned in Iran purely on account of their faith.”
Thomas said “It is vital that the international community maintains pressure on the Iranian regime until the human rights situation positively and irrevocably improves for the better.”
Pastor Nadarkhani’s case was reportedly also highlighted by British parliamentarians on January 11, during a 90-minute debate on human rights in Iran.
Iranian officials have not publicly commented on the reported offer, but earlier denied wrongdoing.
Gholam-Ali Rezvani, deputy governor general of the northern province of Gilan, where the pastor’s case is being reheard, denied to government linked Fars News Agency (FNA) that Nadarkhani faces execution for “apostasy”, or abandoning Islam.
“The issue of crime and of capital punishment of this individual is not a question of faith or religion,” he claimed, despite confirmation from several written court verdicts seen by BosNewsLife.
Nadarkhani, a 34-year-old married father with two children, was “a Zionist, a traitor and had committed security crimes,” Rezvani added. Iranian officials have also said their actions are aimed at defending “Islamic values”.
Christians have linked the imprisonment of Nadarkhani and other converts to concerns among Iran’s government about the spread of Christianity in the strict Islamic nation.