Rumors of the execution of Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani were leaked this week after a source close to one of his lawyers contacted international media, informing them that a lower court had signed Nadarkhani’s execution papers and that his death sentence would be carried out soon, sources told Compass Direct News. “The lawyer is waiting for confirmation, but he understood from a source that the execution was issued,” said Firouz Khandjani, a member of the council of the Church of Iran, Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani’s denomination. “Now we are trying to understand exactly what is happening. Because the information came from someone close to the lawyer, he took it seriously.”
Authorities arrested Pastor Yousef in his home city of Rasht in October 2009 on charges that he questioned obligatory religion classes in Iranian schools. After finding him guilty of apostasy, the court of appeals in Rasht issued a written confirmation of his charges and death sentence in November of 2010. At a June 2011 appeal hearing, the Supreme Court of Iran upheld his sentence, but asked the court in Rasht to determine if he was a practicing Muslim before his conversion. The court declared that Pastor Yousef was not a practicing Muslim before his conversion, but that he was still guilty of apostasy due to his Muslim ancestry.
The Supreme Court had also determined that his death sentence could be annulled if he recanted his faith. The Rasht court gave Pastor Yousef three chances to recant Christianity in accordance with sharia (Islamic law), but he refused to do so. The Supreme Court in essence ruled that Pastor Yousef could be executed if he did not recant.
The court in Rasht was expected to pronounce a verdict on Pastor Yousef’s appeal in October 2011, Khandjani explained, but instead sent his case to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei for a decision on his death sentence, though legally the lower court still has the authority to issue an execution order. He further clarified that Khamenei may or may not make a decision, and if the court were to issue an execution order, Khamenei would have the authority to block it.
Some sources told Compass they are skeptical of the credibility of information that Pastor Yousef’s lawyers received and the certainty with which international press have been reporting his “imminent death.” They say this may be a governmental ploy to gauge international reaction to such a rumor. They do believe Pastor Yousef is still alive. He spoke to his wife as recently as Wednesday, February 22, according to sources, and Jubilee Campaign reported that the American Center for Law and Justice had confirmed that he was still alive as of early last Friday.
Though Pastor Yousef’s lawyers have not received written confirmation of an execution order, Khandjani said he found it “worrying” that the government has repeatedly disregarded its own law and legal process in its treatment of Christians. Christians in Iran are routinely arrested and interrogated. Most of them belong to networks of house churches meeting secretly in small groups. The Iranian government has executed prisoners without prior notice, though it is not common. “We are concerned for the safety of Christians in Iran, because the government is not respecting the law or the legal procedures,” Khandjani asserted.
Other Christians are at risk in Iran as well. One of Nadarkhani’s lawyers, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, faces charges for “actions and propaganda against the Islamic regime,” due to his human rights activities. Iranian authorities view Iranian Christians as pawns of the West trying to bring down the regime, sources said. As Christians in Iran are held hostage to the government’s political whims, some Iranian Christians say the key to their freedom is continued pressure from the international community.
“We have to keep praying and sharing information about Christians in Iran, because this is a difficult moment for the people of Iran,” Khandjani said. “The minorities are particularly affected, but Iranians in general are under pressure from the government. Their freedoms are very restricted.”
Father, we know that You are above all, sovereign over all the earth. We lift up the Christians in Iran, many of whom are even now in prison because of their faith in Jesus. But we come before Your throne today especially on behalf of Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, pleading for his very life. We praise You for the testimony of this courageous servant of Yours who has remained faithful in the midst of tremendous pressure to recant his faith. Comfort him now as he awaits a verdict. Wash over him with Your peace that defies all human understanding. Comfort his wife and children as well. And if he should be called to make the ultimate sacrifice of his life, fill all his vision with the host of heaven welcoming him into Your glorious presence. In the name of Jesus whom he serves, Amen.