BosNewsLife (with STEFAN J BOS)

Poland has summoned Iran's ambassador to demand a stay of execution for pastor Youcef Nadarkhani who has refused to abandon his Christian faith and return to Islam, officials said on Thursday.

"Deputy Foreign Minister Jerzy Pomianowski asked Iran to stay the execution" of the pastor, foreign ministry spokesman Marcin Bosacki said in a statement.

ADVOCACY GROUP URGES PRESSURE TO CONTINUE ON IRAN

UK-based advocacy group, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, says conclusions should not be drawn on the case of Pastor Nadarkhani until a formal written verdict is received from the court in Iran.

“Continued international vigilance and pressure is vital: the life of this man is still very much in the balance,” the group said in a statement released on Thursday.

It said some sources close to the situation fear that reports of a verbal annulment may have been a deliberate attempt to misinform the international community and ease the pressure on the regime.

“CSW urges caution over the recent reports of verbal annulment of the charges against Pastor Nadarkhani," said Mervyn Thomas, CSW’s chief executive officer.

"Until a written verdict is confirmed to have been received by credible sources, there must be no let up in pressure on the Iranian regime."

DAVID ADAMS

The diplomatic move by Poland, which holds the rotating European Union presidency, came amid uncertainty over when, and if, 34-year-old Pastor Nadarkhani would be hanged on charges of "apostasy", or abandoning Islam.

His lawyer, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, said in published remarks on Thursday, there is a “95 per cent chance” of acquittal for Nadarkhani, but it remained unclear whether these comments were part of the defense strategy.

Local Christians with close knowledge about the case cautioned that no official notification of the annulment of the charges against Pastor Nadarkhani had been given to his lawyer.

Iranian Christians also expressed concerns that reports of a "verbal" annulment "may have been a deliberate attempt" to misinform the international community and "ease the pressure on the regime".

The US-based Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) said on Thursday that it "learned" that the death penalty sentence for Pastor Nadarkhani "may be overturned".

CBN cited Jordan Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice as saying that he had "gotten word of the chief judge's decision", although he acknowledged that "no official" court notice had been received following the September 25th to 28th hearings.

He said this does not mean the pastor "will be set free without some additional punishment, potentially a long jail sentence or worse," without providing more details. 

Firouz Khandjani, a council member of the pastor's Church of Iran movement, told BosNewsLife earlier that a verdict "is expected within the next seven days."

Nadarkhani converted to Christianity at the age of 19 and became a pastor of a 400-member Church of Iran congregation in the northern city of Rasht.

The pastor, who is married with two children, was detained in his home city of Rasht in October 2009 while attempting to register his church. Nadarkhani was tried and found guilty of "apostasy", or abandoning Islam, in September 2010 and sentenced to death by the court in Rasht.

In June this year Iran's Supreme Court upheld Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani’s death sentence, but asked the lower court in Rasht to "re-examine" whether or not he had been a practicing Muslim prior to converting to Christianity.

The Rasht court made clear however that Nadarkhani can be executed if he refuses to recant his Christian face because of his "Muslim ancestry."

Besides Poland, the United States, Germany, Britain and the Netherlands are among those demanding that Tehran halts the execution.

Earlier on Thursday, the White House said Iran should also release the church leader. White House press secretary Jay Carney stressed Nadarkhani had done nothing more than stay devoted to his faith.

Carney said Iran’s attempt to force him to renounce that faith “crosses all bounds of decency” and violates Iran’s international obligations.

Iran's government has said it wants to defend "Islamic values". There are at least 100,000 devoted Christians in Iran, many of them former Muslims, according to Iranian church group Elam Ministries.