By Stefan J. Bos, Worthy News Correspondent
RASHT, IRAN (Worthy News)-- A young pastor of Iran's largest house church movement has told an Iranian court he will not "recant" his faith in Christ despite facing execution as early as Thursday, September 29, for abandoning Islam, church sources said.
Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani of the Church of Iran was asked by the Gilan provincial court in the city of Rasht to "repent" ahead of his next hearing Tuesday, September 27. However Nadarkhani declined, according to comments obtained by BosNewsLife.
“Repent means to return. What should I return to? To the blasphemy that I had before my faith in Christ?,” the 34-year-old church leader asked during his first hearing Sunday, September 25.
When the court told him to return “to the religion of your ancestors, Islam” Nadarkhani replied: “I can not.”
The Court said however that Youcef Nadarkhani, whose first name is also spelled as Yousef, has "Islamic ancestry" and therefore "must recant his faith in Jesus Christ," trial observers said.
Yet, fellow Christians following the trial described Youcef Nadarkhani as "being happy [with] his faith strong."
Sources within the Church of Iran said however they fear Nadarkhani may be hanged as early as Thursday, September 29, following the further two days of court hearings.
Though Nadarkhani's supporters were told the case will be send back to Iran's Supreme Court, they fear the provincial court will use a law, temporarily ratified by parliament, "to execute him as soon as Thursday," September 29, explained advocacy group Present Truth Ministries (PTM). "This law dictates what should be done with apostates, depending on what type of apostasy has been committed," said PTM Director Jason DeMars, who closely follows the case. "My sources tell me that [the court has been told] to give the 'apostate' three days to recant, then execute him," he told BosNewsLife .
Section 6 - 225 of Iran's controversial legislation says “when a person's parents were Muslims at the moment they were trying to have a baby, and he or she converts to another religious without claiming to be Muslim, he or she is a national apostate,” DeMars added.
"Section 8 – 225 also states the procedure for handling a national apostate, explained DeMars. "The death sentence is the penalty for National apostate, but after the verdict is pronounced, he or she will be commanded to repent of what he or she has done...If he refuses to repent, he will be killed."
Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, who is married with two children, was detained in his home city of Rasht in October 2009 while attempting to register his church.
His arrest is believed to have been due to his questioning of the Muslim monopoly on the religious instruction of children in Iran, rights activists say.
He was initially charged with protesting, but charges against him were later changed to "apostasy" and "evangelizing Muslims" which carry the death sentence.
Nadarkhani was tried and found guilty of "apostasy", or abandoning Islam, in September 2010 and sentenced to death by the court in the city of Rasht.
In June this year the Supreme Court of Iran upheld Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani’s death sentence, but asked the lower court in Rasht, which issued the initial sentence, to "re-examine" whether or not he had been a practicing Muslim adult prior to converting to Christianity.
The written verdict of the Supreme Court’s decision included provision for annulment of the death sentence if Pastor Nadarkhani recanted his faith, trial observers said.
Although the court found that Pastor Nadarkhani was not a practicing Muslim adult, the court said he remains guilty of apostasy because he has Muslim ancestry.
Nadarkhani’s lawyer, Mohammed Ali Dadkhah, told the court that the repeated demand for his client to recant his Christian faith violates Iranian law and its constitution.
The court reportedly replied that the verdict of the Supreme Court must be applied, regardless of the illegality of the demand.
Religious rights group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) told BosNewsLife that the death sentence for apostasy is not "codified" in the Iranian Penal Code.
"However, using a loophole in Iran’s constitution, the judges in Rasht based their original verdict on fatwas by Ayatollahs Khomeini, the “father” of Iran’s revolution in 1979," CSW said. Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, made the fatwas with Makarem Shirazi, currently the most influential religious leader in Iran.
If confirmed, Nadarkhani would be the first Christian to be officially executed in Iran for religious reasons in 20 years.
The last Iranian Christian convert from Islam executed by the Iranian government was Assemblies of God Pastor Hossein Soodmand in 1990.
However several other Christians, including at least six Protestant pastors, are known to have been assassinated by unknown killers in recent years, BosNewsLife established.
"CSW is calling on key members of the international community to urgently raise Pastor Nadarkhani’s case with the Iranian authorities," said CSW’s Special Ambassador Stuart Windsor.
"His life depends on it, and we have grave concerns regarding due process in this case, and also in that of his lawyer, Mr Dadkhah," Windsor explained.
The CSW official said the verdict handed down to Pastor Nadarkhani "is in violation of the international covenants to which Iran is a signatory, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICPPR)," which guarantees freedom of religion and freedom to change one’s religion.
Windsor also said the trial against Youcef Nadarkhani violates article 23 of the Iranian Constitution which reportedly states that "no-one should be molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief.”
Iranian officials have denied wrongdoing, saying they defend "Islamic values" in the strict Islamic country.
Church officials say there may be as many as 100,000 devoted Christians in the country and that Iran's leadership is concerned about the spread of Christianity.