>Execution is imminent, fear church sources
>U.S., Britain urge Iran to spare pastor's life
>Pastor seen accepting fate
By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)-- As night fell over Iran, there was mounting concern Wednesday, September 28, that Iranian Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani would be executed for refusing to abandon his faith in Christ and return to Islam
"Pastor Youcef has been four times invited [by the court in the northwestern city of Rasht] to recant [his faith] in Christ in order to avoid the execution," explained Firouz Khandjani, a council member of the pastor's Church of Iran movement.
However, "He answered that he will not," Khandjani told BosNewsLife shortly after the pastor's last court hearing Wednesday, September 28. He said human rights lawyer Mohammed Ali Dadkhah, who himself faces a long prison term for "attempting to overthrow the system" was able to attend the hearing. Dadkhah told the court in closing arguments that "the Constitution and the Penal Code do not allow the sentencing to death of pastor Youcef Nadarkhani for apostasy," Khandjani recalled.
Khandjani said a verdict "is expected within the next seven days." Other church sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the clock was ticking and that the 34-year-old pastor, who is married with two children, may be executed as early as Thursday, September 29, perhaps even shortly after midnight local time.
There was international pressure on Iran to spare the pastor's life, including from the United States Speaker of the House John Boehne. "I urge Iran's leaders to abandon this dark path, spare Youcef Nadarkhani's life, and grant him a full and unconditional release," said Boehner, a Republican and the number-three U.S.
In Britain, British Foreign Secretary William Hague also expressed concerns about reports of a possible execution of the pastor, whose first name is also spelled internationally as Yousef. “I deplore reports that Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, an Iranian Church leader, could be executed imminently after refusing an order by the Supreme Court of Iran to recant his faith," Hague explained.
"This demonstrates the Iranian regime’s continued unwillingness to abide by its constitutional and international obligations to respect religious freedom. I pay tribute to the courage shown by Pastor Nadarkhani who has no case to answer and call on the Iranian authorities to overturn his sentence,” he added.
There was no immediate response from Iranian authorities. The government has said however it wants to "defend Islamic values."
Pastor Nadarkhani is facing the death sentence for "apostasy", or abandoning Islam, after being found guilty in September 2010 by the court of appeals in Rasht.
The sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court of Iran, but its verdict included a provision for annulment of the death sentence if Pastor Nadarkhani renounced his faith.
The court in Rasht, which issued the initial sentence, was asked by the Supreme Court "to re-examine" whether or not Pastor Nadarkhani had been a practicing Muslim adult prior to converting to Christianity.
In a session the court ruled that Pastor Nadarkhani had not practiced Islam as an adult prior to conversion, but said the pastor was still guilty of "apostasy" because he has "Muslim ancestry".
Yet, the pastor seemed to have accepted his fate, trial observers said. When asked whether he would "repent" to avoid being hanged, Nadarkhani reportedly answered: "Repent means to return. What should I return to? To the blasphemy that I had before my faith in Christ?”
After the court told him to return “to the religion of your ancestors, Islam” Nadarkhani replied: “I can not,” according to the comments obtained by BosNewsLife.
Religious rights group Christian Solidarity Worldwide said any conviction and execution would be illegal under Iranian law.
It is "in violation of the covenants to which Iran is signatory, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which guarantees freedom of religion and the freedom to change one’s religion,” said CSW Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas in a statement to BosNewsLife.
Nadarkhani himself has told his house church however that the Bible had taught him that Christians can expect to suffer for their faith in Christ. The “Word of God tells us to expect to suffer hardship and dishonor for the sake of His Name. Our Christian confession is not acceptable if we ignore this statement, if we do not manifest the patience of the Lord in our sufferings,” he wrote in a letter earlier this year.
Besides the pastor, several other Christians are held in Iranian prisons. Despite the reported crackdown Christianity continues to spread in Iran.
There are at least 100,000 devoted Christians, including many former Muslims, according to Iranian church group Elam Ministries, while other sources say hunderds of thousands of people have turned to Christian faith.
Pastor Nadarkhani was detained in his home city of Rasht in October 2009 while attempting to register his church. His arrest has also been linked to his questioning of the "Muslim monopoly on religious instruction of children in Iran," church members and activists say. If confirmed, Nadarkhani would be the first Christian to be officially executed in Iran for religious reasons in over two decades.
The last Iranian Christian convert from Islam executed by the Iranian government was Assemblies of God Pastor Hossein Soodmand in 1990, although several other Christians are known to have been assassinated.
(This is a fast developing story. Follow the BosNewsLife Newsfeed via Twitter. Leave comments below).