By Daniel D. Tovrov | September 29, 2011 10:35 AM EDT
Iranian Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who is facing the death penalty, again refused to convert to Islam to save his life.
Nadarkhani was arrested in 2009 for the crime of apostasy because he allegedly abandoned Islam for Christianity. As a pastor, Iranian clerics believe that Nadarkhani was preaching in order to convert Muslims.
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Before his last hearing Wednesday, Nadarkhani had been given three previous chances to repent, and all three times he has refused. After his final refusal Wednesday, no verdict has been announced, but many expect that he could be put to death as soon as Friday.
The case has slowly garnered international attention, and there are a number of Christian rights groups advocating for his release.
U.S. House Speaker John Boehner also has spoken out against Iran. "While Iran's government claims to promote tolerance, it continues to imprison many of its people because of their faith. This goes beyond the law to an issue of fundamental respect for human dignity. I urge Iran's leaders to abandon this dark path, spare [Nadarkhani's] life, and grant him a full and unconditional release," said Boehner.
There were rumors on Wednesday night that Nadarkhani's execution sentence was to be waived after the final trial, but contradicting reports indicate that the news was incorrect.
"We've had some reports that there has been a verbal announcement from the court in Iran that the sentence is annulled but we urge caution," said Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a religious group campaigning for Nadarkhani's release.
"It's been known that verbal announcements have been directly contradicted by later written statements. We are still calling for international pressure to be kept up."
The American Center for Law and Justice said in a message titled "Troubling News" that the rumors were spread by the Iranian secret service in an attempt to get the media to stop reporting the story. ACLJ said Nadarkhani's lawyer Mohammad Ali Dadkhah called the center Wednesday to say the death sentence hasn't been overturned.
Even if the sentence were commuted, Nadarkhani could still face life in prison. And even if he were released, there would still be danger.
"In Iran about 18 years ago, they had released a pastor, but then came and assassinated him and his bishop later. We cannot stop the pressure," Pastor Firouz Sadegh-Khandjani, a Member of the Council of Elders for the Church of Iran, told the ACLJ.
Between June 2010 and January 2011, more than 200 people in Iran were arrested for their religious beliefs, according to Elam Ministries, a United Kingdom-based church with ties to Iran.
In August, a pastor named Haghnejad was arrested for the third time, according to Christian Solidarity. Police also confiscated 6,500 bibles, which Iran's social issues committee deemed were being used to deceive youths.
While no one has been hanged for the crime of apostasy in Iran for more than 20 years, the country has the second highest execution rate of any nation in the world. So far in 2011, there have been about 400 executions, a quarter of which occurred in September.