(Update: Youcef Nadarkhani’s lawyer said Monday his client’s case has been referred to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for a final decision. Commenting on the unusual decision, American Center for Law and Justice executive director Jordan Sekulow said, “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.”)
(CNSNews.com) – Facing growing international outrage over a pastor sentenced to death for apostasy, Iran has stepped up its efforts to deny that religion has anything to do with the man at the center of the controversy.
A Christian ministry close to Youcef Nadarkhani says it has been told a verdict will be delivered on Monday. The pastor and father of two was sentenced to death by hanging late last year, and on appeal the Supreme Court ruled last July that the lower court must reexamine whether Nadarkhani was a practicing Muslim at the time he embraced Christianity more than a decade ago, aged 19.
If he was and he does not “repent,” the Supreme Court ruled, the execution must be carried out.
Back before the lower court in his home province of Gilan late last month, Nadarkhani repeatedly was asked to renounce his faith or be hanged. He refused.
As awareness of his plight grew, governments, lawmakers, human rights advocates and religious leaders joined a growing chorus of condemnation.
Ten days ago, Iran suddenly began to respond. Since then, several government and judiciary figures have been quoted in pro-regime media, calling the entire apostasy claim a fabrication.
These officials, echoed by media organizations, say Nadarkhani is actually guilty of a range of non-religious criminal offenses. The growing list includes “repeated rape,” unspecified violence, corruption, extortion, being a Zionist, treason, “security crimes” – and running a “corruption house,” which one news agency explains is a place where illegal or unethical activities take place, “like an opium house or a prostitution house.”
Critics have called the allegations a transparent attempt to fend off allegations of religious persecution, noting that an English translation of Farsi court documents states clearly that he was “convicted of turning his back on Islam.”
The only other activities referred to in the documents relate to religious belief – the fact that Nadarkhani “often participated in Christian worship and organized home church services, evangelizing and has been baptized and baptized others, converting Muslims to Christianity” and that “during court trials he denied the prophecy of Mohammed and the authority of Islam.”
There are no references to rape, treason, extortion or any other criminal activity in the documents, translated by an exiled Iranian students group and made available by the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ).
The Iranian officials who have weighed in on the Nadarkhani case are the deputy governor- general of Gilan province, Gholam-Ali Rezvani; the Gilan province judiciary chief, Mohammad-Javad Heshmati; and the head of the Iranian Supreme Court, Ayatollah Mohseni Garakani.
Quoted by Iran’s Press TV news service, Heshmati stated that “no conviction at all has been issued yet.” Yet a few paragraphs later Press TV described Nadarkhani as a “convicted rapist and extortionist.”
The semi-official Fars news agency called the reaction to Nadarkhani’s plight a “Western media ballyhoo” and “intense propaganda campaign.”
It said he was sentenced to death last November for “rape, corruption and security-related crimes, including extortion.” If he had truly been arrested for changing his religion, Fars said, it would have happened when he converted at the age of 19.
Jason DeMars of Present Truth Ministries, who has sources close to the case in the Gilan court, said he has been told that the verdict will be delivered on Monday.
“There is speculation that the delay is a sign that the judges have decided to consult with key religious and political leaders, such as the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,” he said.
‘Relentless global pressure needed’
Among those who have spoken out publicly against Iran’s treatment of Nadarkhani over the past fortnight are the White House, Republican presidential candidate and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, numerous members of Congress including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the Italian and British governments, lawmakers in Brazil, Anglican bishops including Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu, and the World Evangelical Alliance, which represents more than 600 million evangelical Christians around the world.
As CNSNews.com has reported, bringing fake criminal charges against individuals being punished for religious activity is common practice in countries whose authoritarian regimes, for varying reasons, wish to duck accusations of religious persecution.
Christian Freedom International (CFI) president James Jacobson said was Nadarkhani was suffering “for simply defending his personal Christian faith.”
“Unfortunately, this situation occurs all too frequently in restrictive nations, and even in countries whose constitutions do, in fact, declare religious freedom for all its citizens but are seldom enforced or upheld,” he told CNSNews.com.
“Throughout the course of CFI’s work in the field, I have known of many circumstances where, like Pastor Nadarkhani, persecuted Christians were arrested on false charges because authorities were attempting to conceal the true nature of their imprisonment,” Jacobson said.
“When the facts of these cases come to light, however, there is an occasional backlash by the international community, and I believe that repressive regimes may bend under relentless global pressure. In the defense of religious freedom, it is important that Western nations, particularly the United States, develop a more assertive and unequivocal stance against such oppression anywhere in the world it is found.”
Neither the United Nations nor the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) – the bloc of Muslim-majority states – has spoken out on the Nadarkhani case.
On Thursday the ACLJ’s European affiliate, which is accredited to the U.N. in Geneva, submitted a letter to U.N. Human Rights Council experts on Iran, religious freedom, freedom of expression, and minority rights, urging them to demand Nadarkhani’s immediate and unconditional release.
It also urged the U.N. experts to press the OIC “to publicly denounce this case and other violations of human rights in Iran.”