After spending more than two years in an Iranian prison for refusing to recant his Christian faith, Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani may be facing final execution orders for apostasy against Islam.
Christian advocacy groups are reporting that Nadarkhani's attorney is trying to confirm reports that an Iranian court has issued a final order-death by hanging-and that the pastor's execution could be imminent.
The White House and the U.S. State Department issued statements on Thursday condemning Iran's treatment of Nadarkhani and calling for his immediate release. Jordan Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ)-a Christian group that has followed Nadarkhani's case closely-said the U.S. government's strong statement "confirms our belief, and those of our contacts in Iran, that the government of Iran has issued the execution order for Pastor Youcef-an execution that could be carried out at any time."
Authorities arrested the 34-year-old husband and father of two in 2009, charging him with apostatizing against Islam. Nadarkhani, the pastor of a Christian church with several hundred members in the town of Rasht, refuted the charges, saying that he had never practiced Islam.
After an appeal, a lower court found that Nadarkhani had not practiced Islam as an adult, but ruled that he was still guilty of apostasy because he was born into a Muslim home.
Since his conviction, Iranian officials have pressured Nadarkhani to recant Christianity, including another ultimatum as recently as December, when authorities offered the pastor his freedom if he would say that the Muslim prophet Mohammed was a messenger sent by God. Nadarkhani refused.
The ACLJ and the Christian advocacy group Jubilee Campaign are urging Christians to pray for Nadarkhani's life, and to join efforts to publicize his plight, including online petitions and Twitter campaigns.
Sekulow said his group received reports that Nadarkhani was still alive on Wednesday but could not confirm if or when Iranian officials might carry out a death sentence. Nadarkhani hasn't made public statements during his appeals process but has remained firm in his response to the court's pressure to recant. When court officials demanded that he embrace Islam, the pastor's response was simple: "I cannot."