By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
TEHRAN/RASHT (BosNewsLife)-- Iranian Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who was sentenced to death and became a symbol of what his church called "suffering Christians" in this heavily Islamic nation, could embrace his wife and children Saturday, September 8, after he was unexpectedly released from prison, BosNewsLife learned.
"Thanks to all who have supported me with prayers", he told BosNewsLife in a statement through an interpreter.
The 35-year-old pastor appeared tired, but said he always kept his faith, even behind bars. "I experienced especially the presence of the Lord on my side every time," Nadarkhani said in brief remarks.
Nadarkhani had urged Christians not to give up hope that he would be released one day.
In a major turnaround the court in his home city of Rasht acquitted him of "apostasy" or abandoning Islam. He was found guilty of evangelizing among Muslims and sentenced to three years in prison, time he already served.
His wife Fatemah “
Relatives were weeping and smiling as he greeted his wife for the first time in freedom.
"This is an answer to prayers," added Firouz Khandjani, his friend and council member of the pastor's 'Church of Iran' house church movement.
In a letter Pastor Nadarkhani earlier called his long detention and possible execution "a trial of faith."
His sudden release suggested disagreements within Iran's leadership about the pastor's punishment, Iranian Christians said.
Officially only Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or Sadegh Larijani, the head of Iran's judiciary, have the authority to halt an execution, according to trial observers.
However "According to the Sharia" or Muslim law, "when a notion is a matter of disagreement they cannot refer to it...It is the official reason why he was released," Khandjani explained to BosNewsLife.
Khandjani thanked BosNewsLife News Agency and its readers for following the case closely. Yet, he cautioned that he remains concerned about the pastor's future.
"Pastor Mehdi Dibaj had his apostasy charges reversed and then was murdered shortly after his release," some two decades ago, he recalled. "Several other pastors have also been assassinated," Khandjani said.
Saturday's release brought to a closure an ordeal that began over three years ago.
Nadarkhani was detained in his home city of Rasht in 2009, after trying to register his church and questioning the Muslim monopoly of religious instruction for children, which he claimed was unconstitutional.
He was later sentenced to death, but following an appeals trial, a court in Gilan province asked a final opinion from Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Khameini, a move critics saw as an attempt to make someone else responsible for executing the married father of two children.
Iranian officials also offered freedom in exchange for renouncing his faith in Jesus Christ on at least four occasions, Christians familiar with the case told BosNewsLife.
As a compromise, officials last December reportedly offered him to at least recognize Islam's Prophet Mohammed as "a messenger sent by God" in exchange for an early release. Pastor Nadarkhani refused to do so saying that statement would "amount to abandoning" his faith in Jesus Christ.
In a letter, obtained by BosNewsLife while he was in prison, the pastor wrote that, "the Word of God tells us to expect to suffer hardship and dishonor for the sake of His Name."
However he said he had told his congregation that "Our Christian confession is not acceptable if we ignore this statement, if we do not manifest the patience of the Lord in our sufferings."
The pastor stressed that, "Anybody ignoring it will be ashamed in that day" when Christians will meet the Lord. "Let us remember that sometimes the leap of faith leads us towards some impasses. Just as the Word led the sons of Israel leaving Egypt toward the impasse of the Red sea," he wrote.
"These impasses are midway between promises of God and their fulfillment and they challenge our faith. Believers are to accept these challenges as a part of their spiritual course."
Khandjani, who himself is in hiding after reportedly being threatened by Iranian security, told BosNewsLife several believers of the Church of Iran and other denominations remain jailed. "There are other prisoners...I hope that they will be released too," Khandjani said.
Despite reported hardship, there are at least 100,000 devoted Christians in Iran, according to church groups, with others saying that figure may be even several times higher.
Iran's leadership has defended its tough stand towards active Christians and denies wrongdoing, saying it defends the country's Islamic values.