Supporters of imprisoned Iranian Christian Youcef Nadarkhani began celebrating Saturday as news reports surfaced that the pastor had been released by Iranian officials, mere months after it appeared a final execution order had been handed down.
Nadarkhani, 34 and a native Iranian, was found guilty in 2010 of apostasy and sentenced to death for refusing to recant Christianity. He has spent the last three years in jail awaiting his fate.
The American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative Christian group founded by Pat Robertson, has been keping careful tabs on the pastor's situation, and broke the news of his release Saturday morning on its website.
According to the ACLJ, the pastor was freed following a nearly six-hour court appearance. The Washington-based group cited sources "close to the case" as saying officials ultimately lowered his charges from apostasy to evangelizing Muslims, which carried a three-year term. Nadarkhani, who has a wife, Tina and two young sons, was therefore released with time served.
Speculation leading up to this most recent hearing in front of the Iranian Supreme Court was that Nadarkhani might be brought up on new security-based charges, which could have been used as an excuse to keep the pastor in jail, Fox reported.
However, speaking to Fox News, Jordan Sekulow, executive director of ACLJ, said the pastor had indeed been released.
"Today our sources in Iran reported that Pastor Youcef was acquitted of apostasy and released from prison. After languishing in prison for almost three years, he has been reunited with his family," Sekulow said.
Sekulow subsequently tweeted a picture of Nadarkhani apparently surrounded by family members.
— Jordan Sekulow (@JordanSekulow) September 8, 2012
Present Truth Industries, another Christian group actively involved in lobbying for Nadarkhani's release, confirmed the reports as well. The group quoted Nadarkhani as saying he thanked his supporters, and "everyone that has supported me with your prayers." It is unclear how the organization had obtained the quote.
During his imprisonment, the plight of Pastor Youcef became a cause celebre for the ACLJ and similar Christian groups like the Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which rallied supporters in his defense, from government officials to megachurch leader Rick Warren.
— Rick Warren (@RickWarren) September 28, 2011
In March, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bi-partisan resolution condemning Nadarkhani's treatment, and the White House released its own, similar statement.
Word of Nadarkhani's possible release spread quickly among the followers of the Youcef hashtag and members of the Facebook group have been posting about the news as well.
Facebook group member Rae Piper, posted, "Praise the Lord! Thank you thank you thank you Lord Jesus!!!!! xxx," while Catherine Katende Hennig wrote, "oh how amazingly and awe-inspiring is are God's ways and will..praise the Lord for Pastor's freedom."