By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent with BosNewsLife Middle East Service
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)– Iran’s religious leadership has pressured church leaders to testify against a jailed Iranian pastor who faces a new trial Saturday, September 8, for “apostasy”, which carries the death penalty.
Youcef Nadarkhani, 35, was to be brought to a special court in his home city of Rasht at around 11:00 am local time, explained Firouz Khandjani, a council member of the pastor’s ‘Church of Iran’ evangelical house church movement.
Nadarkhani was already sentenced to death for “apostasy”, or abandoning Islam, but pressure from the international community reportedly prompted Iran’s religious leaders to demand a new trial.
“They have asked churches who are linked to the government to also testify against us,” Khandjani warned in an interview with BosNewsLife. “That is not a good sign. They may just look for reasons to kill him.”
He added however that, “Many true [church] leaders have already left [the country].”
Secret service agents also tried to infiltrate the Church of Iran, in part to influence decisions on its leadership, Christians said.
“Iran could apply the Chinese model,” Khandjani stressed, referring to the state-controlled churches in China. “A lot of leaders could perform some coup inside their own movements,” to become closer to Iran’s regime, he warned.
Khandjani also cautioned that the pastor may feel “intimidated as five judges are involved” in Saturday’s trial.
Nadarkhani has been behind bars since 2009 when he was captured in his home city of Rasht to register his house church, which is part of the Church of Iran movement.
He also questioned the Muslim monopoly of religious instruction for children, which he claimed was unconstitutional.
Nadarkhani was later sentenced to death by hanging, though a court in Gilan province asked a final opinion from Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khameini, a move critics saw as an attempt to make someone else responsible for executing the married father of two children.
Iranian officials indicated in December however that they could release the pastor if he agreed to make a statement saying Islam’s Prophet Mohammed was “a messenger sent by God”, Christians with close knowledge about the situation told BosNewsLife earlier.
Pastor Nadarkhani reportedly refused to do so saying that statement would “amount to abandoning” his faith in Jesus Christ.
He has been offered freedom in exchange for renouncing his faith in Jesus Christ on at least four occasions, Christians familiar with the case said.
“So I ask all the beloved ones to pray for me as the holy Word has said,” Nadarkhani explained in a recent letter, referring to the Bible, regarded by Christians as God’s Word.
“At the end I hope my freedom will be prepared as soon as possible [and that] the authorities of my country will act with [a] free will according to their law and commandments which [they] are answerable to.”
There are at least 100,000 devoted Christians in Iran, according to conservative church estimates and Christians say Iranian officials want to prevent the spread of Christianity in this strict Islamic nation.
The U.S. State Department has expressed concern about the imprisonment of Nadarkhani, who is married with two children.
In a statement, the State Department said recently that it noted that “July 8 marked 1,000 days Christian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani has spent in an Iranian prison.”
The Department said “Pastor Nadarkhani still faces the threat of execution for simply following his faith”, adding that “we repeat our call for Iranian authorities to release him immediately.”
Khandjani, who knows the family well, told BosNewsLife that “this time is very difficult for his wife” and that his church has urged Christians around the world to pray for them.
Iran’s leadership has denied wrongdoing and claims Nadarkhani is held because of his “criminal” behavior.