By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)-- Iranian Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani facing imminent death has urged his church to remain "firmly in Christ" shortly after a court apparently ordered his execution, a church official told BosNewsLife.
Nadarkhani was still alive Wednesday afternoon local time, February 22, but it remained unclear when he would be hanged on charges of "apostasy" or "abandoning Islam", confirmed the pastor's Church of Iran council member Firouz Khandjani.
The Lakan Prison, near the pastor's northern home city of Rasht, is viewed as notorious by rights activists as several inmates were allegedly "secretly hanged" their, without a fair trial. Nadarkhani, who is married with two children, was however "allowed yesterday to speak with his wife from prison," said Khandjani.
"He did not speak with her about the court order. However he urges his church to stay firmly in Christ," the church official added. A lawyer of Nadarkhani was informed about the execution order, although the defense team has not yet received official written notification from the court.
Khandjani said however that courts not always follow proper procedures in Iran, which is known to have a highly secretive judicial system.
He said the church fears execution is almost inevitable as the pastor has refused to make a compromise with Iran's Islamic rulers. "He was recently asked by the court to acknowledge Prophet Muhammad as a messenger from God. But he refused because he did not want to recant his faith in Christ. That's why the execution order came."
The pastor has been detained since 2009 when he was captured in Rasht to register his house church. The regional Gilan Court sentenced Nadarkhani to death in November 2010 on charges of "apostasy", or abandoning Islam.
His appeal against that ruling was seen as being rejected in 2011. The Supreme Court said "he can be executed" but added it would first ask a "re-examination" by the same court that already sentenced him to death. "Basically they are upholding the sentence," Khandjani explained.
EVANGELICAL HOUSE CHURCH
Iran's Church of Iran is one of the largest evangelical house church movements in the country, with Pastor Nadarkhani's congregation alone having hundreds of members.
Several pastors and other Christians of the movement, many of them former Muslims, are known to have been detained. Some of them have fled after being forced to pay for their release. "We are praying for the pastor," added Khandjani speaking to BosNewsLife.
He is currently hiding with his family amid concerns over his own safety.
Iranian officials denied wrongdoing and have accused the pastor of being "a criminal" and "Zionist."
Despite the reported difficulties there may be at least as many as 100,000 devoted evangelical Christians in Iran, many of them former Muslims, according to mission groups. (This is a developing story, stay with BosNewsLife for continues coverage).