>Ruling comes amid pressure, prayers, Christians say
>Concerns remain as pastor is pressured to recant faith
>Case sent back to lower court
By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife with reporting from Iran
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)– Iran’s secretive supreme court has reportedly overturned a death sentence handed down to an evangelical pastor for leaving Islam, surprising trial observers who were earlier informed about an execution ruling.
However concerns remained Monday, July 4, about the future of 33-year-old Yousef Nadarkhani, as he remained under pressure to recant his faith in Christ, his lawyer and Christians said.
“The supreme court has annulled the death sentence and sent the case back to the court in [his hometown] Rasht, asking the accused to repent,” said his lawyer, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, in a statement to French news agency AFP.
The verdicts can be overturned if the convicted person “repents” and “renounces” his conversion, experts say. Evangelicals argue it’s impossible to renounce their faith as the Bible teaches they have become “born again” and a “new creation” after they “accepted” Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.
Even “renouncing” Christ would therefore not change their Christian identity, they claim.
Citing from the Bible, Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani wrote recently 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.”
Nadarkhani converted from Islam to Christianity at the age of 19 and became a pastor of the evangelical Church of Iran.
It was not immediately clear whether the lower court would again try to seek the death penalty for the pastor in case he does not “repent.”
The 11th Chamber of The Assize Court of the province of Gilan had earlier said Iranian pastor Yousef Nadarkhani must be executed by hanging as he 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.”
His lawyer also cautioned that the verdict from the supreme court overturning the sentence had only been read out to him on the telephone and that he needed to travel to Rasht, where Nadarkhani is being held, to see the ruling for himself.
Activists, including well-informed advocacy group Middle East Concern (MEC), told BosNewsLife earlier they had been told the supreme court had decided to uphold the death sentence, although they acknowledged there was not yet an official written notification available to them.
There has been international pressure on Iran free the pastor. Additionally, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom had asked President Barack Obama to seek the release of Nadarkhani, who is married with two young children.
Iranian Christians had also urged the international community to pray, MEC said.
Ann Buwalda, Executive Director of advocacy group Jubilee Campaign USA, credited the prayers for the apparent positive outcome. “This is a great reminder of the freedom and independence we have on this day,”Buwalda said, referring to Monday’s July 4 Independence Day of the United States.
Yet, defending the pastor can be difficult in Iran. Dadkhah told AFP that he himself was sentenced on Sunday, July 3, by a Tehran court to nine years in jail and a 10-year ban on practicing law or teaching at university for “actions and propaganda against the Islamic regime”.
The lawyer said he had been criticized for having cooperated with the Center for the Defence of Human Rights, an organization founded by
Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi, as well as for giving interviews to foreign radio stations. “I have 20 days to lodge an appeal,” he reportedly said.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government has been accused of cracking down on suspected dissidents and Christians at a time of turmoil and calls for more freedoms in the Arab world.
Despite reported persecution, protests for more political and religious rights continue and church groups say the number of Christians in Iran has grown from 500 known believers in 1979 to at least 100,000 today.