By Stefan J. Bos Chief International Correspondent
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)-- The leader of one of Iran's largest Protestant movements who faces imminent execution for abandoning Islam says he remains faithful to Christ, despite pressure from Iranian authorities to change his mind, according to a message from prison seen by BosNewsLife Saturday, October 30.
Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani wrote to his fellow believers not to fear persecution in the strict Islamic nation, saying Jesus Christ gives him strength. "As we’ve heard He has said: "Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you."
Nadarkhani is detained in a security prison in Lakan, Iran, just south of his hometown of Rasht. He was convicted last month on charges of apostasy, or leaving Islam, which carries the death sentence in Iran, an official of the pastor's Church of Iran movement confirmed to BosNewsLife, speaking on condition of anonymity. Iranian Christians say the pastor was singled-out by authorities "for helping Muslims turn to Christ".
He was eventually arrested last October after protesting against the enforced reading of the Koran, viewed as a holy book by Muslims, to Christian children. His wife Fatemeh Passandideh has been released October 11 by a court in Gilan province, after she was detained on similar apostasy charges, Christians said.
EXECUTION THIS WEEKEND?
Christians closely following the case said Pastor Nadarkhani may face the death penalty as early as this weekend, but there was no immediate independent confirmation. Authorities had reportedly already scheduled his execution for October 24.
Iranian Christians said officials were delaying carrying out the death penalty to put more pressure on the pastor "to turn away from Christ". Under Iranian law, once the written verdict is delivered, there will be 20 days to appeal to the Islamic Republic's Supreme Court, trial observers said.
In a last effort, the pastor's attorney was reportedly trying to appeal the death sentence after he found "serious procedural flaws" in the case.
Nadarhani asked his supporters for prayers. "In the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, I am continuously seeking grace and mercy to you, that you remember me and those who are bearing efforts for his name in your prayers. Your loyalty to God is the cause of my strength and encouragement," he wrote in translated comments.
COUPLE HAS CHILDREN
Christians have expressed concerns about the case as the couple has two young sons and say it underscores growing pressure on the Church of Iran movement, which includes several underground house churches.
The Church of Iran said earlier that it has been "the subject of a campaign of persecution, unprecedented since the advent of the [Islamic] revolution" in 1979, which saw the overthrow of Iran's monarchy and its replacement with an Islamic republic under revolution leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
"Several members of the movement have been arrested since October 2009 among them [also] pastor Behrouz Khandjani, who is still in isolation in the sinister 'plate 100' [prison] of Shiraz [area]." Christian observers say the "elimination of religious minorities" has become a national priority with Christians reportedly being detained across the country.
Despite reported persecution there are at least 100,000 believers in the nation, most of them former Muslims, according to Elam Ministries, a mission group of Iranian church leaders. There were only less than 500 known Christians from a Muslim background in Iran in 1979, according to Elam Ministries' estimates. (With reporting by BosNewsLife's Special Correspondent Joseph C. DeCaro).