Iranian Authorities Pressuring Jailed Christian Pastor to Convert to Islam, Sources Say

Government officials in Iran are trying to convince a jailed pastor to return to Islam as he waits for the nation’s supreme leader to decide whether he should be executed for converting to Christianity, sources close to the case told

Iran’s secret service officials recently approached 34-year-old pastor Youcef Nadarkhani at his prison site in Rasht and presented him with a book on Islamic literature, telling him they would be back to discuss the material and hear his opinion, the sources said. obtained a digital copy of the book given to Nadarkhani, a 300-page compilation entitled "Beshaarat-eh Ahdein," meaning “Message of the Two Eras,” referring to the New and Old Testaments. Through various narratives, the book claims Christianity is a fabrication and attempts to establish the superiority of Islam.

“This isn’t the first time that we have seen this strategy used in the Iranian jail system,” said attorney Tiffany Barrans, the international legal director for the American Center for Law and Justice.

Barrans questioned whether this signaled the ayatollah's willingness to give Nadarkhani another chance, or rather "another way to trap him to allow the regime to continue to punish him or have documented evidence of blasphemy against Islam.”

Barrans, who said she has been in frequent contact with Nadarkhani’s attorneys, said he has been advised by family members, members of the church and lawyers to remain silent, out of fear that the Iranian government may try to use his statements against him, a strategy she said is commonly employed by the regime.

Nadarkhani remains in prison, awaiting a final verdict that has been drawn out and delayed amid heavy and targeted international attention to his case. Iran’s judiciary has been caught in a bind, fearing the ultimate decision will have far-reaching political implications.

If Nadarkhani is released, the judiciary risks appearing disrespectful of the tenets of Shariah law. But if he is executed, Iran will face increasing criticism from the international community, which continues to petition for the pastor’s release.

A few weeks ago, a letter on behalf of the judiciary was sent to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the nation’s highest authority in interpreting Shariah Law, asking him to make the final decision.

It is unusual for the supreme leader to be asked to weigh in on a case, but officials said this case is rare in nature and requires Khamenei’s stamp of approval in order to issue an execution.

Nadarkhani came under the regime’s radar in 2006 when he applied for his church to be registered with the state. According to sources, he was arrested at that time and then soon released.

In 2009, Nadarkhani went to local officials to complain about Islamic indoctrination in his school district, arguing that his children should not be forced to learn about Islam.

He was subsequently arrested and has been held since.

Barrans said there has been much confusion in the story, in part deliberately caused by the Iranian regime through its state-controlled media. She said that in an effort to distract the media, the Iranian government denied that the charge against Nadarkhani was apostasy, or leaving Islam, and instead alleged that he was being held for rape and extortion.

But according to details provided by Barrans and confirmed by with sources close to the case in Iran, Nadarkhani was arrested in October 2009 and was tried and found guilty of apostasy by a lower court in Gilan, a province in Rasht. He was then given verbal notification of an impending death-by-hanging sentence.

In December, his lawyers appealed the decision, and the case was sent to Iran’s Supreme Court, which by June stated that it upheld the lower court’s decision of execution, provided it could be proven that he had been a practicing Muslim from the age of adulthood, 15 in Islamic law, to age 19, the time when he converted.

In September, the lower court ruled that Nadarkhani had not practiced Islam during his adult life but still upheld the apostasy charge because he was born into a Muslim family. The court then gave Nadarkhani the opportunity to recant, as the law requires a man to be given three chances to recant his beliefs and return to Islam.

Nadarkhani refused.

Experts credit international support of Nadarkhani in keeping him alive. Christian advocacy groups and human rights organizations have mounted numerous global campaigns and petitions against the Iranian government.

“For me, as a husband and a father of two, the first thing I think about is being in his situation,” said the Rev. Jason DeMars, founder of Present Truth Ministries, a support group for persecuted church communities in the Middle East.

DeMars has been linked to the network of churches in Iran to which Nadarkhani belonged, providing these communities with materials, mission coordination and international support.

“Politically, Iran wants to spread its influence and revolution throughout the Middle East. If we don’t raise our voices now, this persecution is going to affect Christians in other countries as well,” he said.

Apostasy is punishable by death in Shariah law. Article 225 of the Iranian penal code states, "Punishment for an Innate Apostate is death," and "Punishment for a Parental Apostate is death.”

Under this law, a Muslim who converts to Christian is called a mortad, meaning one who leaves Islam. If the convert attempts to convert others, he is called a mortad harbi, or a convert who is waging war against Islam. Death sentences for such individuals are prescribed both by fatwas, or legal decrees, and reinforced by Iran’s penal code.

All religious minorities in Iran, including Bahais, Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians, have faced various forms of persecution and political and social marginalization throughout the regime’s 30-year reign. But the government saves its harshest retribution for those who have abandoned Islam.

Khamenei is not expected to announce a public decision on the case; he traditionally has influenced cases behind closed doors. Should he decline, the lower court will be responsible for making final judgment.