Christian Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani will be put to death for several charges of rape and extortion, charges that differ greatly from his original sentence of apostasy, Iran’s semi-official Fars News agency reported Friday.
Gholomali Rezvani, the deputy governor of Gilan province, where Nadarkhani was tried and convicted, accused Western media of twisting the real story, referring to him as a “rapist.” A previous report from the news agency claimed he had committed several violent crimes, including repeated rape and extortion.
“His crime is not, as some claim, converting others to Christianity,” Rezvani told Fars. “He is guilty of security-related crimes.”
In a translated Iranian Supreme Court brief from 2010, however, the charge of apostasy is the only charge leveled against Nadarkhani.
“Mr. Youcef Nadarkhani, son of Byrom, 32-years old, married, born in Rasht in the state of Gilan is convicted of turning his back on Islam, the greatest religion the prophesy of Mohammad at the age of 19,” reads the brief.
The brief was obtained by CNN from the American Center for Law and Justice and was translated from its original Farsi by the Confederation of Iranian Students in Washington.
It goes on to say that during the court proceeding, Nadarkhani denied the prophecy of Mohammad and the authority of Islam.
“He (Nadarkhani) has stated that he is a Christian and no longer Muslim,” states the brief. “During many sessions in court with the presence of his attorney and a judge, he has been sentenced to execution by hanging according to article 8 of Tahrir — olvasileh.”
Rezvani, the official from Gilan province, confirmed that his execution is “not imminent” nor is it final.
Mohammadali Dadkhah, the pastor’s lawyer, said through a translator that even in light of the Fars News report, he does not believe Nadarkhani will be put to death.
“The case is still in progress,” Dadkhah said. “There’s a 95% that he won’t get the death penalty. Yes, I still believe that.”
Dadkhah spoke briefly of the trial proceedings, stating that he presented documents to the court that should be convincing, including documents from Shi’ite leaders that state the crime does not warrant the possible punishment.
“This is a legal process that should take its course, and it should stand, on its own merits. It should succeed,” Dadkhah said.
Nadarkhani, the leader of a network of house churches in Iran, was first convicted of apostasy in November 2010, a charge he subsequently appealed all the way to the Iranian Supreme Court. After four days of an appeals trial that started Sunday at a lower court in Gilan Province, Nadarkhani refused to recant his beliefs.
That said, Rezvani — echoing an earlier report from Fars — insisted that “Nadarkhani’s crime and his death sentence have nothing to do with his beliefs.
“No one is executed in Iran for their choice of religion,” he added. “He is a Zionist and has committed security-related crimes.”
The possible execution of Nadarkhani, based on an assumption it is tied to his Christian belief, has elicited responses from the highest levels of the United States government, too.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released a statement Friday that said the United States stands with “all Iranians against the Iranian government’s hypocritical statements and actions.”
The White House released a statement on Thursday, stating that Nadarkhani “has done nothing more than maintain his devout faith, which is a universal right for people.”
“That the Iranian authorities would try to force him to renounce that faith violates the religious values they claim to defend, crosses all bounds of decency and breaches Iran’s own international obligations,” reads the statement.
Leonard Leo, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, says a trial for apostasy in Iran is rare. According to him, this is the first apostasy trial since 1990.
Nadarkhani’s trial and his possible execution have engaged American Christians, as well. Todd Nettleton, spokesman for Voice of the Martyrs, a Christian organization that attempts to assist with persecuted and minority churches around the world, called the news of the new charges proof that international attention on the issue is working.
“They are feeling the attention, they are feeling the weight of the eyes of the world watching how they are treating this man,” Nettleton said. “I am dumbfounded, though, that at this stage in the game, this is what they would trot out.”
Voice of the Martyrs manages a Facebook page that has brought a lot of attention to Nadarkhani’s trial. With comments updated by the minute, thousand of people have taken to Facebook to spread the word about the pastor.
In light of this news, Nettleton said the Facebook page would continue to be active.
“I think our first response will be prayer for pastor Youcef,” Nettleton said. “Prayer that justice will be done and that he will remain faithful no matter that the days ahead may bring for him.”