The convoluted apostasy case against Youcef Nadarkhani, an Iranian pastor facing execution for his conversion to Christianity, has been referred to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for his opinion
Nadarkhani's lawyer, Mohammad Dadkhah, told CNN that Nadarkhani is still alive while the court asks the highest religious leader in Iran for input. Khamenei, whose position gives him the ultimate authority in Iranian affairs, has spoken out against Christianity over the past year, said Todd Nettleton, director of media development at Voice of the Martyrs.
"This either gives [Khamenei] a chance to put some action behind his words or it gives him a chance to backpedal a little bit and perhaps make some friends in the international community," Nettleton said.
Middle East Concern said that the Iranian Supreme Court has reportedly stated it will consider a further appeal in Nadarkhani's case. Both developments are "relatively unique" in Iran, Nettleton said.
"It's very unusual for a local court to say [it's] not going to make a decision," he said. "And it's unusual [that] apparently the Supreme Court—without being asked, without an appeal going to them, and even before a decision has been issued—has said they would be willing to consider a further appeal."
Adding to the confusion surrounding the timeline of the case, recent reports of the Iranian Supreme Court announcing a retrial appear to be a "rehashing of old news," according to the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which has been closely following the case.
"The only new information is that the supreme court has indicated that they would in fact 'review' an appeal by Pastor Nadarkhani," ACLJ executive director Jordan Sekulow said. "A 'review' in no way guarantees that the Supreme Court would hold yet another round of hearings and we hope and pray that an appeal will not be necessary."
Nadarkhani, who was sentenced to death in 2010 for apostasy and evangelizing Muslims, has already appealed the sentence to the Iranian Supreme Court. The appeal resulted in a partial retraction of the sentence that allowed for the annulment of Nadarkhani's death sentence if he recanted his faith, as well as ordered an investigation into Nadarkhani's religious beliefs prior to his conversion. Last week Iranian officials said Nadarkhani was not sentenced to death for apostasy, but rather had been found guilty of rape, extortion, and Zionism, despite copies of official documents that say otherwise.
Nadarkhani's case has received international attention, and governments including France, Britain, and the United States have spoken out against the ruling. The ACLJ submitted a petition on behalf of more than 156,000 Americans to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, urging her to work with Iran to secure Nadarkhani's release.
The Institute for Global Engagement (IGE) also signed the letter, even though they usually avoid taking positions on individual cases of religious freedom. "We don't usually sign on letters for particular cases, not because we are unsympathetic," said IGE president Chris Seiple, "but because there are plenty of NGOs who do sign, and because we, per our founding, seek the long-term, strategic approach. In that context, however, I signed this one because I think it has the potential to be strategic, especially in the larger context of the alleged assassination attempt on the Saudi ambassador here in Washington," Seiple said. "It's a very important time [in Iran and the Middle East] in terms of patterns that are established for how minorities will be treated."
This article has been updated since its original posting.
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Christianity Today earlier covered confusion over Nadarkhani's case, his conviction, and the White House response.
Earlier coverage of Iran includes reporting how persecution has increased Christianity's appeal and how western missiologists viewed the push for U.S. sanctions against Iran.
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