By Damaris Kremida
A pastor in Iran sentenced to death for refusing to recant his faith may have to wait another year for a ruling on whether the sentence will be upheld, according to sources.
Yousef (also spelled Youcef) Nadarkhani, sentenced to death after a court of appeals in Rasht, Iran, found him guilty of leaving Islam in September 2010, has been in prison since October 2009, yet his lawyers said they were told to not expect any movement on his case for another year.
“The news we have about Yousef is not official, but that’s what the lawyers are saying,” a member of the Church of Iran who requested anonymity told Compass. “The lawyers speak to the judges’ secretaries and hear things. Rasht is not a big city, so it is easy to know what is happening.”
The head of Iran’s Judiciary, Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani, has reportedly ordered the presiding judge over the trial in Rasht to do nothing for one year.
The court in Rasht, 243 kilometers (151 miles) northwest of Tehran, was expected to pronounce a verdict on Nadarkhani’s appeal in October, and sources said the court’s long silence bodes ill. Instead of pronouncing a verdict, the court sent the Christian’s case to the nation’s Islamic authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, to make a ruling.
Authorities have also continued to pressure Nadarkhani to recant his faith while in prison. In September they gave him Islamic literature aimed at discrediting the Bible, according to sources, and instructed him to read it. The court reportedly has been told to use whatever means necessary to compel Nadarkhani to recant his faith.
The anonymous Christian who spoke to Compass said he didn’t believe that Nadarkhani would be executed soon, but he said authorities were tense about his case, indicating that nothing was certain.
Some Iranian Christians have said that, in the face of international outrage over the case, the government would announce a verdict near the Christmas holidays so that it would receive less notice.
Many Christians in Iran believe Church of Iran doctrine is less than Trinitarian, although the statement of faith on the church’s website (http://www.eglisediran.org/?page_id=8) indicates belief in a triune God-head of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Christian leaders in Iran have called for prayer for their leaders and congregations over the Christmas and New Year period, as there are fears that pressures on churches may intensify in the coming days, according to advocacy group Middle East Concern (MEC).
“These fears stem partly from the waves of arrests last Christmas and New Year, and also the previous year, in which several dozen believers were detained,” MEC reported in a press statement. “Two of those arrested in late December 2010, Farshid and Noorallah, remain in prison.
Farshid Fathi, 32, has been in the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran since Dec. 26, 2010. He is married and has two young children. Noorollah Qabitizade, a Christian convert and a house church leader held in Ahwaz in southwestern Iran, has been in prison since Christmas Eve of last year.
Between December of last year and February, authorities arrested scores of Christians. All have been released, except for Qabitizade and Fathi.
Authorities arrested Nadarkhani in his home city of Rasht in Oct. 2009 on charges that he questioned obligatory religion classes in Iranian schools. After finding him guilty of apostasy, the court of appeals in Rasht in November 2010 issued a written confirmation of his charges and death sentence.
At an appeal hearing in June, the Supreme Court of Iran upheld Nadarkhani’s sentence but asked the court in Rasht to determine if he was a practicing Muslim before his conversion. The court declared that Nadarkhani 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 Nadarkhani three chances to recant Christianity in accordance with sharia (Islamic law), but Nadarkhani refused to do so. His final appeal hearings ended on Sept. 28, and the court was expected to make its final decision two weeks from the final hearing.
Nadarkhani’s lawyer, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, also faces charges for “actions and propaganda against the Islamic regime,” due to his human rights activities.
In addition, this month Iranian authorities sentenced Alireza Seyedian to six years imprisonment for being baptized in Turkey and uploading a video of his baptism to the Internet, according to Mohabat News. Seyedian is another member of the Church of Iran, and Dadkhah is also representing him.
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.