By BosNewsLife Middle East Service with reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)-- An Iranian court has asked the pastor of one of Iran's largest house church movements to abandon his faith in Christ and return to Islam if he wants to avoid execution, a church official told BosNewsLife Sunday, September 25.
On "the first day" of his trial pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, whose first name is also spelled as Yousef, was "asked by the judge...to recant his faith in order to avoid execution," said Firouz Khandjani, a council member of the Church of Iran movement.
However the pastor's lawyer, human rights attorney Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, told the court Sunday, September 25, that "this request was against the law and the constitution," Khandjani explained.
Nadarkhani was sentenced to death by hanging for being an "apostate" to Islam in November 2010. His appeal against that ruling was rejected on June 27, 2011.
The Supreme Court said "he can be executed" but added it would first ask a "re-examination" by the same lower court that already sentenced him to death.
"The local court was ordered by Branch 27 of the Supreme Court to examine specifically whether he was a practicing Muslim between the age of accountability, 15, until he became a Christian at age 19," said Jason DeMars, director of advocacy group Present Truth Ministries, which also closely follows the case.
There was no immediate known reaction from Pastor Nadarkhani, who has been prevented from talking to reporters.
Yet, earlier this year he urged members of his home church and other Christians not to give up their faith in Christ. In written remarks, resembling letters written by jailed Apostle Paul from the Bible, Nadarkhani called upon believers to accept persecution “as a part of their spiritual course.”
The 34-year-old pastor, who is married with two children, was initially detained in the northwestern city of Rasht in October 2009, while trying to register his home church.
He has been held since in the prison of Lakan, just outside Rasht, where Christians claim he has been tortured.
Ahead of Sunday's trial hearing, DeMars asked Christians "if you feel led [by] the Lord" to "fast and pray for brother Youcef", BosNewsLife reported earlier.
DeMars said that "Though the situation looks very dark naturally speaking, our God is the one who made light to shine out of darkness and the one who specializes in doing things thought impossible."
He urged believers to "Pray for wisdom for strength for Youcef to take his stand, for the attorney to have wisdom and courage to speak the truth." He said it was also important to pray for "the hearts of the judges to be as clay in the hands of the Master Potter, our Lord Jesus Christ."
His case has come to symbolize wider persecution, according to rights activists. Besides the pastor, several other Christians are detained across Iran as part of an effort by authorities to defend what they call "Islamic values" of the strict Islamic nation.
Despite the reported crackdown, there may be as many as 100,000 devoted Christians in Iran, church groups say, many of them former Muslims. (Follow BosNewsLife's Twitter feed for the latest updates.)