By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
TEHRAN/MOSCOW/BUDAPEST (BosNewsLife)– Iran has notified jailed Iranian Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who was sentenced to die for “apostasy”, to prepare for fresh charges against him at a new trial in September, advocacy officials told BosNewsLife late Thursday, July 5.
“Our sources in Iran have informed us that Youcef has been officially notified of a new trial for ‘crimes against national security’,” explained Jason DeMars, director of the Present Truth Ministries group, who is assisting the pastor with advocacy.
Religious rights organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) told BosNewsLife that “blasphemy” may also be
added to the list of accusations during the September 8 trial.
News of the procedures came just days after an influential Iranian leader reportedly said Iran would “probably pardon” Nadarkhani and that his execution had been “overturned.”
Ayatollah Mohammad-Ali Taskhiri, the secretary-general of the ‘World Assembly for Proximity of the Islamic Schools of Thoughts’, made the remarks last week in Moscow during talks with the Russian Orthodox Church, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported.
Interfax quoted Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill as saying that he had asked Iran’s spiritual leader and highest authority, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, “to pardon the pastor”. The patriarch reportedly also urged Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to intervene.
“Ayatollah Taskhiri said in a reply, citing his sources, that the death sentence on the Iranian pastor had been overturned,” the Department for External Church Relations (DECR) said in a published statement from Moscow.
Taskhiri also “assured” Russian Orthodox official Metropolitan Hilarion, “that after his return to Iran he would hand over the Russian Patriarch’s request for the pastor’s pardon to the office of the Iranian spiritual leader,” the DECR added.
DeMars cautioned however that while the new trial suggests the death-sentence carrying charge of “apostasy”, or abandoning Islam, has “been dropped since the new charges have been issued” there was “no confirmation” of that.
Only Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or Sadegh Larijani, the head of Iran’s judiciary, have the authority to halt an execution, according to trial observers.
Without their intervention, “the authorities are obliged to carry out the Supreme Court ruling, which stated that Pastor Nadarkhani could be executed if he refused to recant” his faith in Christ, added CSW, in an analyze on the situation.
There is concern among Iranian Christians and activists that the new trial is part of an effort by Iran’s leadership to make the initial procedure and subsequent death sentence look “more acceptable” to the international community.
The United States, European Union, France, Britain, Germany and Mexico are among those who have condemned Iran for detaining Nadarkhani and have called for his quick release.
“The Iranian government is increasingly bringing charges against Christians on political grounds to mask the fact that like Pastor Nadarkhani and Pastor Fathi Malayeri, they have been arrested and imprisoned solely on account of their faith,” CSW Advocacy Director Andrew Johnston told BosNewsLife in a statement.
On Sunday, July 8, it will 1,000 days that Nadarkhani is behind bars, facing the death sentence for apostasy, which was upheld following an appeal at the Supreme Court.
His friends have linked the charge to his involvement in the Church of Iran, one of the country’s largest house church movements.
Nadarkhani, 35, was detained in his home city of Rasht in 2009, after questioning the Muslim monopoly of religious instruction for children, which he claimed was unconstitutional.
His case has twice referred to Iran’s supreme leader, who has yet to issue a final ruling. He has been offered freedom in exchange for renouncing his faith in Jesus Christ on at least four occasions, but has consistently refused to do so, Christians familiar with the case said.
CSW’s Advocacy Director Andrew Johnston said his group remains worried about the new charges faced by Pastor Nadarkhani in September.
“We are also concerned by the lack of due process in these cases and continue to call for the immediate and unconditional release of Pastor Nadarkhani, Pastor Fathi Malayeri and others who are unjustly imprisoned or facing execution following flawed judicial processes.”
He said CSW has urges the Iranian authorities to “ensure respect for the right to freedom of religion, which is guaranteed in the international covenants to which Iran is a signatory, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).”
Iranian authorities have denied wrongdoing saying they uphold the values in the strict Islamic nation.