TEHRAN As Christians around the world prepared to celebrate Easter, Iranian pastor Yousef Nadarkhani remains in jail alive, yes but having already passed his 900th day behind bars for being a Christian and still facing a possible execution.
Nadarkhani, whose first name also can be spelled "Youcef," was able to visit with one of his sons whose birthday was April 2, according to the American Center for Law and Justice, which is closely monitoring the case.
His 900th day in jail occurred in late March.
For weeks now, rumors have floated on Facebook and Twitter that he has been executed, with a picture of a body often accompanying the post. But that picture was taken well over a year ago of another person, and it's highly unlikely Iran would take a picture of Nadarkhani if he was executed, says Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice.
"We're able to confirm that he's alive pretty regularly, at least weekly," said Sekulow.
Often, Sekulow said, rumors of Nadarkhani's execution are easily dismissed, particularly if a rumor starts on the weekend. That's because the Iranian government shuts down around mid-Thursday and doesn't reopen again until Sunday in recognition of the Muslim calendar.
"They won't send out pictures [of Nadarkhani]," Sekulow said. "He is not someone who is on trial for being a spy those are the pictures of people we usually see. He is not one of those public executions."
Nadarkhani was sentenced to death in 2010 for converting from Islam to Christianity in a case that began in 2009.
The United States and the United Kingdom have spoken out publicly for Nadarkhani, pressuring Iran, and other countries are doing so too. Among those is Brazil, which unlike the U.S. and the U.K., has close ties to Iran. That gives Brazil leverage, said Sekulow, who visited Brazil earlier this year to discuss the case with Brazilian officials.
"Brazil has a working relationship with Iran on a daily basis," Sekulow said. "The Brazilian government has really taken this case senators, the executive branch, the people of Brazil. And it's such a key diplomatic partner for Iran."
In March, Iran acknowledged to the U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in Switzerland that Nadarkhani was charged with faith-based crimes. Specifically, Iran's human rights representative, Mohammad-Javad Larijani, said Nadarkhani was charged with: telling youth about Christ without their parents' permission, leading an illegal house church in his home, and offending Islam.
"He offended Islam by saying that Jesus was the only way to heaven," Sekulow said.
Sekulow urged the rest of the world to continue praying for Nadarkhani while also recognizing that the American view of courts and jails is meaningless in Iran.
"He has the death sentence hanging over his head, and the question now is: Does Iran try to push this to another trial try a new judicial process to stall the issue because of the international pressure? That's where we're focused now. We have gotten so much of the world's attention," Sekulow said. "I think we have to get past the goal of just keeping him alive, and figure out how to get him to be released."
Sekulow's group raised the alarm about Nadarkhani's case in February, fearing that an execution was imminent. That did not occur, but that does not mean that one was not scheduled, Sekulow said. Iran has a history, he said, of scheduling an execution to see if the information leaks.
"If it doesn't [leak], they may carry it out, and that's what happened the last time they did this."
Iran last carried out an execution for apostasy in 1990.
"He's not doing this to be some worldwide martyr that everyone knows about," Sekulow said. "He really is representing hundreds if not thousands of people who are in the same situation."
In September, Nadarkhani was given four chances to recant his faith in court and refused each time. His case then was referred to the ayatollah. The American Center for Law and Justice reported one of his court exchanges.
"Repent means to return. What should I return to? To the blasphemy that I had before my faith in Christ?" Nadarkhani asked.
"To the religion of your ancestors, Islam," the judge reportedly replied."I cannot," the pastor responded.
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