Iran (MNN) — Yesterday marked the third day of an Iranian local court demanding a pastor repent of Christianity and return to Islam on penalty of death.
32-year-old Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani is the pastor of a 400-member church. He was convicted of apostasy and has been sentenced to death for allegedly renouncing his Muslim faith. He was arrested in 2009 after protesting Islamic education for his sons.
Nadarkhani's case went to the Supreme Court, but the court sent the case back to a lower court with instructions for further investigation as to whether or not Nadarkhani had ever actually been a Muslim.
In the lower courts, Nadarkhani was given three days to turn from Christ and accept Islam — a move the courts claim is necessary since Pastor Youcef has Muslim ancestry. Nadarkhani refused to reject the faith.
Sources say when Pastor Yousef was asked by the judges to repent, he said, "Repent means to return. What should I return to? To the blasphemy that I had before my faith in Christ?" When judges told him to return to "the religion of your ancestors, Islam," Pastor Yousef responded, "I cannot."
Nadarkhani has used up all his chances in the court. "We hear some rumors that he could be executed literally this week. He's had three days, which is called for in Islamic law to reconsider his decision, and he could be executed at any time," reports Todd Nettleton with Voice of the Martyrs.
Pastor Youcef's friend, Firouz Sadegh-Khandjani, a Member of the Council of Elders for the Church of Iran, says according to the judicial system, after three days he can be executed. He told Jordan Sekulow with the The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) that Nadarkhani should never have been arrested in the first place based on Iranian law, but he fears the lower court might act anyway.
The consequences of an execution would not only reach Pastor Youcef and his family, but potentially the entire Christian network in Iran.
"There has not been a judicial execution of a Christian for more than 20 years in Iran. So it is not something that has happened very recently. If in fact this happens and Pastor Youcef is executed, that would mark a significant change in direction by the government in how they're treating the church, in how they're treating Christians–especially those who have left Islam to follow Christ," says Nettleton.
Nettleton says such a ruling may indeed have much to do with the seemingly unstoppable growth of the church in Iran. "Obviously [this case] is designed to produce fear. It's designed to produce intimidation. [Christians] will know about it and have to work through those emotions," says Nettleton.
Despite the extremely high stakes, however, Nettleton doubts a ruling against Pastor Youcef will deter church growth. He says people know the risks they're taking when they decide to follow Christ in Iran, especially if they are turning their backs to Islam.
Nettleton says the exposure of the case may actually be an opportunity for church growth. "There is so much disillusionment and dissatisfaction with Islam and with the government in Iran–which is run by the mullahs–that this can really be a time when people are exploring other options. And obviously we'd love for them to hear the Gospel and to meet Jesus in a personal way."
Prayer is in order whatever the outcome. Pray for Pastor Youcef to be freed. Pray also for safety for him and his family. Pray for courage, strength and leadership in the Iranian church. Pray that Muslims will come to Christ throughout this experience.
You can also directly encourage Pastor Youcef and appeal to your government officials on Nadarkhani's behalf by visiting www.PrisonerAlert.com. Do this quickly, as time may be running out.