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Iran’s death sentence for Christian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani’s has not been carried out, and now there are complications developing that could mean good news for the faithful believer, according to reports from those with contacts inside the repressive nation.
Iran’s Supreme Court now has requested a review of the situation by Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini, after it was determined that under Iranian law Nadarkhani never was a Muslim.
American Center for Law and Justice Executive Director Jordan Sekulow says difficulties have come up for the Iranian prosecution of the Christian because the 34-year-old pastor didn’t fit the definition of an apostate according to Iranian law.
“Technically the death penalty hasn’t been overturned. The case was sent back … to review because there hasn’t been an execution for apostasy since 1990,” Sekulow said.
“Whether or not he was ever actually technically a Muslim under their version of Shariah law, and that’s based on the ayatollah’s writings and it (a conversion) has to happen between the ages of 15 and 19,” Sekulow said.
“Based on that the courts have determined that he was never a Muslim at the age of majority they call it. Because his parents were (Muslims) and his ancestors, then he would have to be given an opportunity to recant his faith,” Sekulow said.
WND reported two weeks ago that under questioning, Nadarkhani was asked three times to renounce his Christian faith. Nadarkhani refused each time.
Sekulow says the September trial was to persuade Nadarkhani to recant. Sekulow adds that the death sentence still stands because the pastor wouldn’t back down.
“The court could have issued a verdict within a week after that, but they didn’t. The Iranian courts are known for delaying things for months,” Sekulow said.
“What was unprecedented is not that they delayed their final ruling. It’s that they delayed their ruling because he (Nadarkhani) is not clearly an apostate,” Sekulow said.
“Because of the conditional thing and the ancestors, they took the unprecedented move which we believe would not have happened without the international attention, they said, ‘We’re going to the ayatollah with this thing,'” Sekulow added.
Media reports confirm that the death sentence has not been officially overturned, and that Nadarkhani may still face execution for charges of rape and extortion that appeared in Iran’s reporting on the situation long only after the controversy over the possible execution reached the international community.
CNN says the Iranian government now is claiming the story was “distorted,” and that Nadarkhani was charged with a series of violent crimes, although international ministry organizations say such charges never were included in the case until just the past few days.
“Although an investigation later determined that Nadarkhani never converted from Islam, his sentence remained the same because he left the ‘religion of his ancestors,'” Clay said.
“In whatever way we look at it, Nadarkhani was given the death sentence for simply becoming a Christian,” Clay said.
“However, our focus should remain on Nadarkhani’s original so-called crime, which was apostasy. Under Iranian law, ruled by Shariah, apostasy warrants the death penalty,” Clay said.
Clay agreed with Sekulow’s analysis that international pressure is responsible for the Iranian government’s hesitation on the death penalty.
“It appears that as a result of international pressure on Iran for issuing the death sentence to Youcef Nadarkhani for apostasy, the sentence is being reviewed,” he said.
“However, Iran responded by changing the charges against him to collaborating with Zionists, espionage, and even rape. We know these charges have no merit and have only been announced by the Iranian press to divert international pressure,” Clay said.
“However, at this point, it’s uncertain how intently the court will use these new charges against Pastor Nadarkhani. According to Nadarkhani’s lawyer, the new charges have not been mentioned in the Supreme Court,” Clay also said.
Again, Clay attributes international pressure for Nadarkhani still being alive.
“International pressure has helped significantly in Pastor Nadarkhani’s case; in fact, it may be the only reason he’s still alive. Iranian authorities may be stalling to make their decision so that the world loses patience and interest.”
“We’re moving in that direction. By Friday, we’re hoping to have a very strong message to them,” Whitehead said.
Whitehead adds that he’s also working to get President Obama’s attention on the issue.
“We are prepared to go back to the president and the State Department. The last time we did a letter, we called the State Department and they said they were aware of the situation,” Whitehead said.
“What we’re trying to do is at least get the president to make a statement on the subject. I think eventually we can but he’s been very, very quiet,” Whitehead said.
WND reported two weeks ago that Whitehead sent a letter to President Obama asking the president to pressure the Iranian government to reverse the death sentence.
A spokesman for the State Department says officials are involved in trying to protect Pastor Nadarkhani’s life.
“We are absolutely committed to winning Pastor Nadarkhani’s release even in light of the new charges,” the State Department spokeman said.
Sekulow says that his office is working with the European affiliate of the ACLJ that is a U.N. Non-Governmental Organization and he says he’s also been in contact with the ACLJ affiliate office in Moscow, hoping to get the Russian government to persuade the Iranians in this case.
Sekulow observes that the court documents prove that Nadarkhani has never been charged with anything except apostasy. He adds that the unique “spin” from the government is the product of the Iranians paying attention to the outside.
“Never before was he charged with anything other than apostasy or leaving the faith, so all of that spin from the Iran… That doesn’t happen because of internal Iranian pressure or from the Christian community,” Sekulow said.
“It happens because the world’s taken notice. We have this unique opportunity actually because the ayatollah, say what you will about him on diplomatic matters, foreign policy matters and how he treats the people, he is himself more immune from the pressures of a judge from the religious community,” Sekulow said.
“If he makes a decision, it gives everyone cover,” Sekulow said.
Clay says it’s the eventual decision of the ayatollah that concerns him.
“We’re expecting a final verdict to be announced in the next couple weeks,” Clay said.
Clay says that Iran’s sudden rulings are frequently accompanied by instant imposition of the sentence.
“As often happens in Iran, a verdict may show up at the front door of
Nadarkhani’s home along with his body, or he could be executed in prison
without the world knowing until hours later,” Clay said.
“There really is no certainty of when the decision will be made. The verdict could come any day now.”
Clay’s analysis is accompanied by a request for prayer.
“ICC asks that Americans pray for Nadarkhani. Please continue to pray for Pastor Nadarkhani and his family and to spread the word of his plight. We must continue to be vigilant and increase the pressure.”