By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)– A jailed pastor of one of Iran’s largest evangelical house church movements remains “strong in his faith” in Christ, despite facing execution before Christmas for refusing to return to Islam, a church official told BosNewsLife Wednesday, November 9.
“Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani remains in Lakan Prison in Iran’s Gilan Province. He continues to stand strong in his faith and remains in good spirits and health,” said Firouz Khandjani, a council member of the Church of Iran.
Wednesday’s announcement came as the 11th circuit court in Gilan awaited an opinion from Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khameini. The court asked the leader in two letters to express his views about its earlier decision to hang the pastor for “apostasy”, or abandoning Islam, trial observers said.
Pastor Nadarkhani was detained in the city of Rasht in October 2009, while trying to register his 400-strong Church of Iran home congregation.
The Gilan court sentenced Nadarkhani to death in November 2010. His appeal against that ruling was rejected on June 27, 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.
Its surprise request to the supreme leader for a “final opinion” on the case comes amid mounting international pressure on Iran to release the church leader.”One of Youcef’s attorneys stated that the court will wait for one month for a response. If they do not have it, they will issue a ruling sometime in mid-December,” explained Khandjani.
Iranian officials have denied the pastor received the death sentence because of his Christian views, despite court documents linking the planned execution to charges of “apostasy”.
Press TV, viewed by critics as a mouthpiece of the government, recently said Iran “has firmly refuted Western allegations of violating human rights” insisting that “Nadarkhani has a history of committing violent crimes and that he has never received a death penalty for his religious preference.”
The network condemned what it called “Western media” who “manipulated the case of Nadarkhani, a convicted rapist and extortionist in Gilan Province.”
Press TV said Western media are “waging an anti-Iran publicity campaign by falsely claiming that his criminal conviction is because of his conversion to Christianity and acting as a priest.'”
The Church of Iran, a major evangelical house church network, has no priests but pastors and elders supervising the congregations.
Khandjani told BosNewsLife that he has urged church members to keep praying for the pastor, citing Bible verse Ephesians 6:18-20: ”Praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints,and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.”
The 34-year-old pastor Nadarkhani, who is married with two children, seemed to have accepted his fate, Iranian Christians told BosNewsLife earlier.
When asked by the court in late September whether he would “repent” to avoid being hanged, Nadarkhani reportedly answered: “Repent means to return. What should I return to? To the blasphemy that I had before my faith in Christ?”After the court told him to return “to the religion of your ancestors, Islam” Nadarkhani replied: “I can not,” according to the comments obtained by BosNewsLife.
He isn’t the only family member facing criminal charges for converting to Christianity. Last year his wife Fatemeh Pasandideh was jailed for several months. They were also told that their two young children would be given to Muslims to raise them, Iranian Christians said.
Despite his death sentence, the pastor says he has no regrets. Only a church based “on the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ will remain, for beyond the protection of the Word of God the destroyer destroys,” he wrote in a letter to his church that was published by BosNewsLife in August. And, he said, “Let believers, who are heirs of the glory, be examples for others in order to be a witness of the power of Christ for the world and the future.”
The last Iranian Christian convert from Islam executed by the Iranian government was Assemblies of God Pastor Hossein Soodmand in 1990, although several Christians are known to have been assassinated.
Besides Nadarkhani, other believers are also held in Iranian prisons amid reported concerns among authorities about the spread of Christianity in the strict Islamic nation.
There are at least 100,000 devoted Christians, including many former Muslims, according to Iranian church group Elam Ministries, while other sources say hundreds of thousands of people have turned to the Christian faith.