An Iranian court is likely to delay its verdict in a case concerning Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, who is facing death penalty for converting to Christianity, to allow authorities to further coerce him to convert to Islam as he remains in jail.
The evangelical pastor’s lawyer has learned that the head of Iran’s judiciary, Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, has asked the presiding judge over the trial, Ghazi Kashani, to delay the pending judgment and keep him in prison for another year, Present Truth Ministries said in a statement Thursday.
Nadarkhani, a 32-year-old house church leader from the Church of Iran denomination, was convicted of apostasy last year and was sentenced to death by hanging. However, the Supreme Court of Iran asked for the retrial of his case by a lower court in the city of Rasht in northern Gilan Province.
The deliberate delay is meant to let the case “slip away from international attention” even as the authorities continue to “use whatever means necessary to cause him to convert to Islam,” said Jason DeMars, the founder of the ministry that was first to report on the pastor’s arrest two years ago.
It was earlier learnt that the court in Rasht had asked Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei, the highest ranking political and religious authority in Shi’a-majority Iran, to rule on whether the pastor should be put to death.
The pastor was arrested in October 2009 from Rasht for allegedly protesting Islamic instruction in schools for his children, Daniel, 9, and Yoel, 7, and after he sought to register his church. Authorities, however, later changed the charges to apostasy. He has been lodged in a prison in Lakan, about seven miles south of Rasht, since then.
In June 2010, authorities also arrested pastor’s wife Fatemah Pasindedih to pressure him to convert. During this time their boys went to live with a relative. Yousef and his wife were also threatened that their children would be taken away and given to a Muslim family, but they remained firm. Pasindedih was later released.
The Rasht court convicted the pastor of leaving Islam and sentenced him to death in November 2010.
The pastor appealed against the Rasht court’s ruling at the Supreme Court in December 2010, as apostasy is not a crime as per Iran’s penal code. The court, however, held in June 2011 that apostasy was still punishable under Sharia or Islamic law but asked the lower court to reexamine whether Nadarkhani was a believer in Islam when he adopted Christianity at the age of 19.
During the hearings held in September 2011, Pastor Nadarkhani was told by authorities that he would be given three opportunities to embrace Islam and renounce his faith in Christianity to have the charges removed. But he refused to do so.
On Sept. 26, the court determined that Youcef was a Muslim when he adopted Christianity because he was born in a Muslim family. All witnesses stated that he did not practice Islam, yet the court inexplicably determined he was a national apostate.
While the court is likely to wait for another year before reaching a decision, “there are no assurances that he will not be executed,” warned the ministry. “It could happen at any time. This is the way that the Iranian government operates with executions. They do not give advance notice and it is done in secret.”