(ADDS MORE COMMENTS, BACKGROUND, ANTICIPATED RELEASE)
By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)– In an unexpected turnaround, an Iranian court on Saturday, September 8, effectively ordered the release of Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani who was sentenced to death for “apostasy”, or abandoning Islam, his church told BosNewsLife.
“Pastor Nadarkhani has been acquitted of apostasy but found guilty of evangelizing among Muslims. He was sentenced to three years in prison” meaning he will be released as “he has already served” that time, explained a pastor and council member of Nadarkhani’s Church of Iran house church movement.
“This is an answer to prayers,” said Firouz Khandjani, a council member of the ‘Church of Iran’, who added the pastor was expected to walk out of prison later on Saturday, September 8.
He said the ruling was made by a special court in the pastor’s home city of Rasht.
Khandjani thanked BosNewsLife News Agency and its readers for following the case closely. Nadarkhani’s story sparked an international outcry from Brussels to Washington, with the European Union and the United States urging Iran to release him.
The ruling also came amid reported disagreements among Iran’s religious leaders about the notion of apostasy. “According the Sharia, 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, speaking from an undisclosed location because of security concerns, cautioned that the pastor may still face dangers. “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 added.
There were some fears that church leaders linked to the government, or otherwise pressured, would be called to testify against Nadarkhani, as BosNewsLife reported earlier, but that appeared not to have happened during the hearing Saturday, September 8.
Khandjani said that following the publicity “they became silent.”
Pastor Nadarkhani has been behind bars since 2009 when he was captured in his home city of Rasht to register his house church, which is part of the growing Church of Iran movement.
He also questioned the Muslim monopoly of religious instruction for children, which he claimed was unconstitutional.
Nadarkhani was later sentenced to death by hanging, but after an appeals hearing 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 indicated in December however that they could release the pastor if he agreed to make a statement saying Islam’s Prophet Mohammed was “a messenger sent by God”, Christians with close knowledge about the situation told BosNewsLife earlier.
Pastor Nadarkhani reportedly refused to do so saying that statement would “amount to abandoning” his faith in Jesus Christ.
He has been offered freedom in exchange for renouncing his faith in Jesus Christ on at least four occasions, Christians familiar with the case said.
“So I ask all the beloved ones to pray for me as the holy Word has said,” Nadarkhani explained in a recent letter, referring to the Bible, regarded by Christians as God’s Word.
“At the end I hope my freedom will be prepared as soon as possible [and that] the authorities of my country will act with [a] free will according to their law and commandments which [they] are answerable to,” the pastor wrote, before Saturday’s announcement.