During a final day of hearings in an Iranian court on Wednesday, officials gave Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani a final ultimatum: Recant your Christian faith or face the possibility of execution. Nadarkhani refused to recant.
That sets up a grim prospect for the husband, father of two young children, and pastor of a 400-member congregation in the city of Rasht. The Iranian court could decide as early as this week whether to find the Christian guilty of apostasy and carry out a sentence of death by hanging.
While religious liberty groups and U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, have called for Nadarkhani's release, by early Thursday the U.S. State Department had not publicly commented on the case that could end in swift death.
Police arrested Nadarkhani in October 2009 after the pastor (reportedly in his mid-30s) tried to register his congregation with Iranian authorities. A court quickly issued an oral verdict finding Nadarkhani guilty of apostasy against Islam and sentencing him to death. A month later, officials issued a written verdict demanding his execution by hanging.
After Nadarkhani appealed, the Iranian Supreme Court upheld the verdict in June of this year but ordered an investigation into whether the pastor practiced Islam before converting to Christianity. If officials found he wasn't a practicing Muslim before becoming a Christian, the court could reverse the apostasy verdict. Officials found that Nadarkhani didn't practice Islam before converting, but they delivered a twist: Since he has Muslim ancestry, he must still recant Christianity.
During three separate court hearings this week, Nadarkhani has refused to recant. Jordan Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ)-who publishes regular updates from Nadarkhani's attorney-reported an exchange between the pastor and court officials: "When asked to 'repent' by the judges, [Nadarkhani] stated: 'Repent means to return. What should I return to? The blasphemy that I had before my faith in Christ?' The judges replied: 'To the religion of your ancestors-Islam.' To which he replied: 'I cannot.'"
If court officials return a guilty verdict, they could execute Nadarkhani immediately. ACLJ and the U.K.-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide called for Nadarkhani's unconditional release and asked Christians to pray for the pastor and his family. Officials from the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Commission on International and Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said the U.S. government and international community should demand Nadarkhani's release and oppose ongoing persecution against religious minorities in Iran. USCRIF reported that Iranian authorities arrested several members of a Christian house church network earlier this month and that their whereabouts are unknown.
Speaker Boehner joined calls for Nadarkhani's release and urged Iranian officials to "abandon this dark path." British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he "deplored" reports of an imminent execution and called on the Iranian court to overturn the sentence. By early Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hadn't commented on Nadarkhani's case.
Confusing reports emerged late Wednesday that the court might overturn Nadarkhani's sentence, but by Thursday morning his attorney had denied the rumors. Officials at Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported that Iranians could have started the rumors of a release to deflect international pressure. But the group said continued pressure is vital: "The life of this man is still very much in the balance."
UPDATE: On Thursday afternoon, the U.S. State Department issued a statement condemning the conviction of Youcef Nadarkhani and calling for his release: "Pastor Nadarkhani has done nothing more than maintain his devout faith, which is a universal right for all people. 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."