TEHRAN, IRAN -- The case of imprisoned Iranian pastor Yousef Nadarkhani now has been referred to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, Agence France-Presse, a French news service, reported Oct. 10.
The ayatollah has ultimate authority in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and AFP said the move to involve him in the case could mean a delay in the final verdict, which had been expected Monday.
"The step to involve the most powerful leader in Iran demonstrates that Iran is feeling the pressure," Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice, said. "Involving the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in a case before a regional court is unusual. We can be certain if the lies spread by Iran were true -- that Youcef was instead convicted of rape, extortion and Zionism -- the court would not seek the advice of the Supreme Ayatollah.
"Now that Iran's Supreme Leader will be considering the case, it is imperative that our top diplomat, Secretary of State Clinton, call for Pastor Youcef's unconditional release," Sekulow wrote in a post on the group's website Oct. 10.
More than 125,000 people had signed the petition asking Clinton to pressure Iran on behalf of the pastor, Sekulow said. Also, bipartisan support was growing in Congress with Reps. Joe Pitts, R.-Pa., and Heath Schuler, D.-N.C., writing a letter to Clinton urging her to intervene.
"We implore you to raise your voice at this critical juncture on behalf of Pastor Nadarkhani. We must not stand by while the Iranian Regime executes a man who has committed no crime," the letter, released to the ACLJ, said.
By Oct. 7 the letter had been signed by at least 39 members of Congress, including 13 Democrats. Notably, Rep. Keith Ellison, D.-Minn., the first Muslim elected to Congress, was among them.
Sekulow asked Americans to sign the Clinton petition and to contact their members of Congress and request that they sign the Pitts-Shuler letter with urgency, given the possibility that Nadarkhani could be executed at any time without any prior announcement.
Meanwhile, the European Centre for Law and Justice, the ACLJ's international affiliate which holds special consultative status with the United Nations, submitted a letter on Nadarkhani's behalf, calling on the United Nations to secure the pastor's immediate and unconditional release.
The letter explained that Nadarkhani's conviction and death sentence are inconsistent with the Iranian constitution and the nation's obligations under international law. The ECLJ reminded the United Nations that the pastor's case "has tremendous implications for all Christians and religious minorities in Iran and is yet another indicator of the regime's disregard for basic human rights and freedoms."
Nadarkhani, 32, was arrested in 2009 and charged with apostasy, an offense punishable by hanging. A lower court found that while he had never been Muslim, he was guilty of apostasy because he came from a Muslim family. The Iranian Supreme Court upheld his death sentence.
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.