By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)-- Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani has to serve at least one more year in prison before he may be executed for refusing to abandon his faith in Christ and return to Islam, an official assisting him told BosNewsLife Thursday, December 15.
Iran's judiciary wants to use that time to "use whatever means necessary to cause him to convert to Islam", explained Jason DeMars, director of advocacy group Present Truth Ministries (PTM).
DeMars, who is closely involved in the case, said the head of Iran's Judiciary, Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani, had ordered the presiding judge over the trial in the city of Rasht, to "do nothing for one year."
"The order was to not issue a verdict and hold Youcef in prison," DeMars quoted an attorney of the pastor as saying. The court was told "to use whatever means necessary to cause him to recant and return to Islam," DeMars added.
The 34-year-old Nadarkhani, who has a wife and two children, was detained in his home city of Rasht in October 2009 while trying to register his house church.
Nadarkhani was eventually found guilty of "apostasy", or abandoning Islam, in September 2010 and sentenced to death by the Rasht court.
In June this year Iran's Supreme Court did not overturn the ruling but instead asked the Rasht court to "re-examine" whether the pastor was a practicing Muslim before he became a Christian at age 19.
Nadarkhani told the court however that he would remain faithful to Christ, said an official of the Church of Iran house church movement.
"Pastor Youcef was [therefore] 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 to BosNewsLife earlier.
"He answered that he will not,"Khandjani said.
With international pressure mounting, the Rasht court decided to ask Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to rule whether Nadarkhani should be executed. It was not immediately clear what role Khamenei played in Thursday's announced decision to keep the pastor in jail.
With Nadarkhani facing another Christmas behind bars, there is concern among Iranian Christians about the future of the pastor and his family, DeMars suggested.
He said he asked PTM supporters in a message to "pray for this situation" and ask "the Heavenly Father to work His perfect will for Youcef, provide for his family and work salvation in the lives of many in Iran."
Iranian government officials have denied Nadarkhani faces the death penalty by hanging for his Christian faith, despite court documents confirming this possibility.
Press TV, viewed as a mouthpiece of the government, claimed recently that "Nadarkhani has a history of committing violent crimes and that he has never received a death penalty for his religious preference."
The European Union, United States and other countries have urged Iran to release the evangelical pastor.
Activists view him as a voice for many other voiceless believers facing harassment and detention in the strict Islamic nation.
There has been a government crackdown on new churches amid reports there may be as many as 100,000 devoted Christians, including many former Muslims, in Iran.
Some church groups say hundreds of thousands of people have turned to the Christian faith at a time of increased hardship in the country.