By BosNewsLife Middle East Service with reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)-- Christians in Iran have challenged reports that the death penalty for Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani has been annulled, saying the Supreme Court appears to have added a precondition requiring him to renounce his faith, or face execution, a religious rights group said Wednesday, July 6.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) also told BosNewsLife that Iranian Christians have still not seen written confirmation of the court’s decision on Pastor Nadarkhani’s appeal against a death sentence for apostasy, or leaving Islam.
The pastor's lawyer, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, said Sunday, July 3, that the Supreme Court "annulled the death sentence and sent the case back to the court in his 'hometown' Rasht, asking the accused to repent."
CSW cited an unidentified church source however as saying: "This is not good news. It merely gives more time to re-examine the case, but in the end the judges will be told what to do."
Dadkhah also cautioned that the sentence was read out to him by phone and that he still has to travel to Rasht, where the pastor is held, to see the verdict for himself.
However his movements are made difficult as he was sentenced to nine years in jail and a 10-year ban on practicing law or teaching at university for "actions and propaganda against the Islamic regime", BosNewsLife reported earlier. The case has been linked to his human rights work and interviews with foreign media.
He has 20 days to appeal Sunday's ruling, but CSW cited its sources as saying he may be imprisoned within a week.
CSW said the secretive Supreme Court's decision in the Nadarkhani case has been variously described as “flawed”, “contradictory” and “extra-judicial” and "may indicate that the judges were under political pressure not to release Pastor Nadarkhani."
It cited also unconfirmed reports of "a split decision, with one of the judges allegedly stating that the ruling made little sense."
A lower court, the 11th Chamber of The Assize Court of the province of Gilan, had earlier said Iranian pastor Nadarkhani must be executed by hanging as he had proved his "apostasy" by "organizing evangelistic meetings and inviting others to Christianity, establishing a house church, baptizing people, expressing his faith to others and, denying Islamic values."
The last known Christian to be officially executed this way by the Iranian government was Assemblies of God Pastor Hossein Soodmand in 1990.
Nadarkhani, 33, converted from Islam to Christianity at the age of 19 and became a pastor of the evangelical Church of Iran. His wife, Fatemeh, was detained last year for her involvement in the church from June 8 to October 11, said her supporters, who also expressed concerns about the future of the couple's two young sons.
CSW’s Advocacy Director Andrew Johnston said his group's "thoughts and prayers are with Pastor Nadarkhani, Mr Dadkhah and their families at this uncertain time." He said, "CSW is gravely concerned about the judicial process
The advocacy group, he explained, has urged the Iranian regime "to respect the stipulations of international treaties to which it is party, including the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICPPR), which guarantees freedom of religion and freedom to change one’s religion or belief."
In addition, the alleged conduct of both cases "may amount to a violation of Article 14:1 of the ICCPR, which stipulates the right to a fair hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal," he said.
"Pastor Nadarkhani’s life and Mr Dadkhah’s future both hang in the balance. The international community must act urgently to press Iran to ensure due process in both cases, and that Pastor Nadarkhani in particular is acquitted of a charge that is not in fact recognized under Iranian civil law.”
Iran's government has been cracking down on the growing house churches as many of its members are former Muslims, rights activists and Iranian Christians have told BosNewsLife.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government has defended harsh sentences, including death sentences for political opponents and Christians, as part of defending the values of the Islamic state.
Iranian church leaders have estimated that despite the reported crackdown there may be at least as many as 100,000 Christians in the strict Islamic nation, up from just about 500 known believers in 1979.