By Stefan J. Bos, Worthy News Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
TEHRAN, IRAN (Worthy News)-- A well-known Iranian pastor faces execution after two judges agreed to make him "liable to capital punishment," as part of a crackdown on the growing Protestant church movement in the Islamic nation, Worthy News and its parner agency BosNewsLife learned Tuesday, July 13.
Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani was detained in June along with wife Fatemeh Pasandideh in the city of Rasht in northwestern Iran because of their Christian activities, Iranian Christians said.
A senior pastor of the Church of Iran movement, which includes house churches across the country, told Worthy News that judges had "already signed" an Islamic order that would potentially allow a death sentence for Nadarkhani, pending further investigations. The pastor usually speaks on condition of anonymity to BosNewsLife amid security concerns.
News of the execution overshadowed joy over the release of two Church of Iran Christians, a man and a woman, and the expected release this week on bail of two other members, who the movement only identified as "brothers Mehdi and Afshin."
They were part of a group of eight Church of Iran members detained June 18, the senior pastor said. One of them, a pastor's wife identified as Fatemeh Kojouri Tork, remained in Tehran's notorious Evin prison Tuesday, July 13, while her husband, Behrouz Sadegh Khanjani, was kept in isolation in a security prison in the southwestern city of Shiraz, the Christian leader said.
"We still do not hear from Reverend Behrouz Khanjani..." Iranian Christians have also expressed concerns about reports of other detentions, including last month's capture of Pastor Behnam Irani in the city of Karaj, 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) west of Tehran.
Several believers have allegedly been mistreated. "We have learned that information that [security forces] have been using substances to extract confessions from Christians," the senior pastor said.
Iranian officials have not commented on the cases.
Rights groups have linked the crackdown to concern among authorities about growing churches and the spread of Christianity among Muslims in the country.
Church sources say the number of Christians in Iran has grown from 500 known believers in 1979 to at least 100,000 today.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has reportedly said the government needed to halt the growing movement of house churches across Iran.
Under Iran's strict interpretation of Islam, "apostasy" -- or the formal renunciation of religion-- is punishable by death.