By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)– A detained pastor of a major network of Christian house churches in Iran will be executed by hanging for “apostasy”, or abandoning Islam, according to translated court documents seen by BosNewsLife Wednesday, November 24.
The 11th Chamber of The Assize Court of the province of Gilan said Iranian pastor Yousef Nadarkhani had proved his “apostasy” by “organizing evangelistic meetings and inviting others to Christianity, establishing a house church, baptizing people, expressing his faith to others and, denying Islamic values.”
Nadarkhani is “an apostate [and] will be executed by being hung…Somehow his soul is taken from him,” the court wrote.
The written verdict was “officially handed out” Tuesday, November 23, said a source of Nadarkhani’s evangelical Church of Iran network speaking on condition of anonymity.
Lawyers Naser Sarbazi from Tehran and Abbas Salmanpour from Gilan’s capital Rasht, who already learned about the verdict earlier this month, are appealing the sentence, BosNewsLife learned.
Under Iranian law, once the written verdict is delivered, there will be 20 days to appeal to the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Court.
The 33-year old Nadarkhani, who was detained in October last year, is currently held in a security prison in Lakan, Iran, just south of his hometown of Rasht.
He was arrested after protesting against the enforced reading of the Koran, viewed as a holy book by Muslims, to Christian children including his own. His wife Fatemeh Passandideh was released October 11 by a court in Gilan province, after she was detained on similar apostasy charges, Christians said.
In comments accompanying the death sentence, the court claimed Nadarkhani confirmed he converted to Christianity from Islam, despite possible execution. “Even in his last defense…when he was asked [by the prosecutor] ‘from the age of puberty until the age of 19, what religion have you had?’, he replied… ‘Since I was born in a Muslim family I was Muslim until I converted to Christianity at the age of 19’.”
Nadarkhani said the persecutor “induced” him “to believe whoever is born from Muslim parents and does not choose any religion after passing the puberty age, is a Muslim,” the court acknowledged.
However adding to the “apostasy” were indications that he did not agree with all aspects of Islam, according to the verdict obtained by BosNewsLife. The court noticed that Nadarkhani believes in “the unity of God and the resurrection of the dead” but expressed concerns that in his view Mohammad “is the prophet of Muslims but not a messenger from God…”
Nadarkhani’s defense team argued that their client confirmed that “Muhammad was a prophet of Islam” and that he did not commit a crime of apostasy because he was never a true Muslim.
The lawyers also pointed out that there is “no punishment specified in the Islamic judicial system of Iran and other penal laws” for these kind of cases and that their client “has not committed a crime to deserve a punishment.”
The court disagreed. “It has been proven to the members of the jury that Mr. Yousef Nadarkhani, son of Biram, has been born from Muslim parents, choose Islam [but] abandoned it at the age 19. His actions according to the fatwas of all Shia theologians is considered as inherent apostasy from the sacred religion of Islam.”
If confirmed, Nadarkhani would be the first Christian to be officially executed in Iran for religious reasons in 20 years. The last Iranian Christian convert from Islam executed by the Iranian government was Assemblies of God Pastor Hossein Soodmand in 1990.
However several other Christians, including at least six Protestant pastors, are known to have been assassinated by unknown killers in recent years.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has asked President Barack Obama Obama to seek the release of Nadarkhani, who is married with two young children.
Yet, citing from the Bible, Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani wrote to his fellow believers not to fear persecution in the strict Islamic nation, saying Jesus Christ gives him strength. “As we’ve heard He has said: “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.”
Despite reported persecution there are at least 100,000 believers in the nation, most of them former Muslims, according to Elam Ministries, a mission group of Iranian church leaders. Many of them worship in underground house churches, including those of the Church of Iran movement.