Iran officials pressure pastor to convert

Tehran, Iran - A jailed Iranian pastor who could be put to death for his faith has been given Islamic literature and been asked to read it -- a move potentially meant to trap him into a blasphemy conviction.

The American Center for Law & Justice and Christian Solidarity Worldwide -- two groups that have monitored the case for months -- say that if pastor Yousef Nadarkhani reads the literature and says anything negative about Islam, he could be charged with blasphemy. Both groups say Nadarkhani has been advised not to read the literature.

"Any criticism of their contents would open the way to charges of blasphemy," Christian Solidarity Worldwide said in a statement on its website.

The case has grown muddied in recent weeks. Although Nadarkhani was charged with blasphemy after his 2009 arrest, Iranian officials in October denied that the charge was blasphemy and instead claimed the charge was of a security nature. They even said he had run a brothel -- a charge that outside groups said was false and was meant to distract the international community.

The ACLJ reported Oct. 26 that their contacts confirm Nadarkhani is still alive. He and his supporters are awaiting a decision on his fate by Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

"International pressure against the Iranian regime continues to mount -- but it must be sustained until Pastor Youcef is released unconditionally," ACLJ said in a statement.

Nadarkhani was arrested in 2009 after complaining that his son was being taught Islam in school. He eventually was sentenced to death. Earlier this year the Iranian Supreme Court upheld the death sentence but ordered a lower court to examine whether Nadarkhani was ever a Muslim -- a fact essential to determine whether he left Islam for Christianity. But that lower court in Rasht, Iran, found that although Nadarkhani was never a practicing Muslim "he remains guilty of apostasy because he has Muslim ancestry," Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which monitors religious freedom, reported.

In late September of this year, he was given four chances to recant his faith in court and refused each time. His case then was referred to the ayatollah.

Nadarkhani's refusal to recant his faith has inspired Christians worldwide. The ACLJ 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?" he asked.

"To the religion of your ancestors, Islam," the judge reportedly replied.

"I cannot," Nadarkhani responded.