TEHRAN (BP) — An Iranian pastor who potentially faces a death sentence for being a Christian will remain in prison at least four more months and perhaps up to a year, according to conflicting reports.
The American Center for Law and Justice reported Friday (Dec. 16) that an Iranian court had ordered any decision on pastor Yousef (also spelled Youcef) Nadarkhani to be delayed at least four months, meaning he will be in prison there during Christmas and well into the new year.
Meanwhile, a second organization that monitors religious freedom in the Middle East, known as Present Truth Ministries, reported that the delay would last a year.
Either way, the news was disappointing to Nadarkhani’s supporters who had hoped he might be freed by now.
It is not known yet what role Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei played in the decision. Nadarkhani’s supporters had been awaiting a decision by the ayatollah and had been expecting it to be handed down in mid-December. The court had requested an “opinion” from the ayatollah.
The goal of keeping him in prison, Present Truth Ministries said, is to “use whatever means necessary to cause him to recant and return to Islam.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement Dec. 9 calling for Nadarkhani and several other prisoners of conscience worldwide to be released “immediately and unconditionally.”
Nadarkhani was sentenced to death a year ago after a court of appeals found him guilty of leaving Islam.
The case dates back to 2009 when Nadarkhani was arrested after complaining that his son was being taught Islam in school. He eventually was sentenced to death by the court of appeals. Earlier this year the Iranian Supreme Court upheld the death sentence but ordered a lower court to examine whether Nadarkhani was ever a Muslim — a fact essential to determine whether he left Islam for Christianity. But that lower court in Rasht, Iran, found that although Nadarkhani was never a practicing Muslim he remained guilty of apostasy because he had Muslim ancestry.
In late September of this year, he was given four chances to recant his faith in court and refused each time. His case then was referred to the ayatollah. The American Center for Law and Justice reported one of his court exchanges.
“Repent means to return. What should I return to? To the blasphemy that I had before my faith in Christ?” Nadarkhani asked.
“To the religion of your ancestors, Islam,” the judge reportedly replied.
“I cannot,” the pastor responded.
Compiled by Michael Foust, associate editor of Baptist Press.
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