Iranian authorities acquitted condemned pastor Youcef Nadarkhani of apostasy charges and released him from a Tehran prison, according to the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ).
The acquittal comes nearly three years after Iranian authorities jailed Nadarkhani on charges of apostasy against Islam and sentenced the pastor to death by hanging.
The ACLJ—a Washington, D.C.-based Christian advocacy group with close ties to Nadarkhani—reported that the pastor appeared in an Iranian court on Saturday for another hearing on the charges brought against him: "His hearing lasted almost six hours. But in the end, he was released and able to return home to his family."
A statement from the ACLJ said that sources reported the court reduced Nadarkhani's charges to evangelizing Muslims and released him with time served. The photo accompanying this article shows Nadarkhani, 32, greeting his two young sons and supporters bearing flowers as he left the prison. The pastor appears healthy.
Nadarkhani's sudden release was a surprising turn in a case that had drawn international attention. Christian advocacy groups and lawmakers from around the world—including the United States—had called for Iranian authorities to spare the pastor's life and release him from jail. Nearly 3 million people worldwide had voiced support for Nadarkhani in a "Tweet for Youcef" campaign on Twitter.
The U.K.-based group Christian Solidarity Worldwide had reported earlier that Iranian judges could level new charges against Nadarkhani this month to give judges fresh impetus to carry out a death sentence against him.
Instead, officials suddenly released the pastor, sparking international celebration for Nadarkhani and his family.
Ann Buwalda of the Virginia-based Jubilee Campaign sent an email on Saturday to Christians who had prayed for Nadarkhani for years: "Oh brothers and sisters, rejoice with us. Your prayers and ours have been answered."
Buwalda urged supporters to continue to pray for Nadarkhani, particularly as his family contemplates whether to stay in Iran or flee the country: "While I am sure that Pastor Youcef would prefer to stay with his flock, the high-profile nature of his case may put him, his family, and his church in extreme danger as long as they stay in Iran. Pray that God would grant wisdom."
The Jubilee Campaign and other advocacy groups also urged prayer for the many other Christians facing persecution and imprisonment in Iran. Those cases continue largely apart from the international spotlight.
Nadarkhani—who grew up in a Muslim home but never embraced Islam—refused multiple offers of release over the last three years. Iranian authorities had promised to free him if he recanted Christianity and affirmed Islam. Nadarkhani repeatedly refused, answering in court with two simple words: "I cannot."