(Photo: Courtesy of ACLJ.org)
American Christians and U.S. officials are rallying behind a pastor in Iran who faces execution for refusing to recant his Christian faith.
While the Obama administration had remained silent despite calls to intervene in the case of Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, the White House Press Secretary released a statement Thursday, asking Iranian authorities to release the pastor.
"Pastor Nadarkhani has done nothing more than maintain his devout faith, which is a universal right for all people," the statement reads. "That the Iranian authorities would try to force him to renounce that faith violates the religious values they claim to defend, crosses all bounds of decency, and breaches Iran’s own international obligations."
Some reports indicated that Nadarkhani could be executed as early as Thursday, but the president of Present Truth Ministries told The Christian Post that a written verdict has yet to be issued.
The pastor's attorney, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, in Iran told Jason DeMars of Present Truth Ministries that they are still waiting on the final written verdict. According to DeMars, the attorney was also confident three of the five jurists will change their minds and annul the pastor's death sentence.
Nadarkhani, 34, served as the leader of a church network in Rasht, Iran. He was arrested on Oct. 13, 2009, after protesting the government's decision to force all children, including his own Christian children, to be taught about Islam. He has been imprisoned ever since.
He was initially charged for protesting but the charges were later changed to apostasy and evangelism to Muslims.
Nearly a year later in September 2010, Nadarkhani was convicted and sentenced to death. A written verdict was delivered in November and he was to be executed by hanging for apostasy.
The ruling was appealed but the Supreme Court of Iran upheld the decision in June of this year. At the same time, the court asked the local court in Rasht to determine if he was a practicing Muslim before his conversion and said his death sentence could be annulled if he recanted.
This week, the local court determined that because his parents were Muslim, Nadarkhani is a national Muslim and therefore is required to recant his Christian faith.
Nadarkhani refused to disavow his faith four times this week, the final time being on Wednesday.
U.S. officials and Christians are watching the case closely and calling for intervention and prayer as they await the final verdict, which, by law, must be delivered within seven days.
In a statement Wednesday, Congressman Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) accused the Iranian government of hypocrisy for "disregarding one of the most fundamental human rights: the ability of the Iranian people to freely choose a faith of their choice."
"I appeal to whatever semblance of humanity may remain in the hearts of Iran's leaders and urge the Obama Administration to make it clear, through every channel possible, that such grievous human rights abuses will not stand."
A source close to Nadarkhani’s family warned that the verdict could be delivered even after the execution, according to Compass Direct News.
"They probably won’t kill him today, but they can do it whenever they want,” the source told CDN. "They can hang him in the middle of the night or in 10 days. Sometimes in Iran they call the family and deliver the body with the verdict. They have gone outside the borders of law. This is not in the Iranian law, this is sharia. Sometimes they don’t even give the body."
DeMars of Present Truth Ministries also cited cases where the family does not hear about the execution until after it has happened. He thus commented that it was "really critical that we continue to pray for him" and pressure U.S. officials to demand for the pastor's release.
Nadarkhani's case has gained national media attention. Jonathan Racho of International Christian Concern told The Christian Post that both the severity of the case and the fact that the courts are involved are likely reasons for the wide attention. Additionally, Christians have been hard at work sending out alerts and updates about the Iranian pastor, Racho noted.
"When Christian organizations work hard to mobilize their constituents to do something to help persecuted Christians like Youcef, you can see that some things will happen," Racho commented.
Nadarkhani is married and has two sons, Daniel, 9, and Yoel, 7.