Iranian Gov’t Says Christian Pastor Insulted Islam, But Denies He Faces Death Penalty

By Patrick Goodenough | March 13, 2012 | 4:37 AM EDT

Mohammad-Javad Larijani, secretary-general of the Iranian government’s High Council for Human Rights, addresses the Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday, March 12, 2012. (UN Photo by Jean-Marc Ferre)

( – Challenged about the fate of a Christian pastor on death row for “apostasy,” an Iranian envoy at the U.N. Human Rights Council for the first time acknowledged publicly that Youcef Nadarkhani’s offenses included insulting Islam, and he added two other previously undeclared charges.

Mohammad-Javad Larijani, Iran’s human rights chief, also claimed that since the 1979 revolution, no one has been executed – or even been “pursued” -- in Iran for converting from Islam to another faith.

Larijani spoke during a debate Monday at the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, which was considering a report by the U.N. “special rapporteur for human rights in Iran.” It referred to a range of abuses and concerns, including discrimination faced by religious minorities in the predominantly Shi’ite country.

The report did not mention Nadarkhani specifically, but his name did come up during the oral presentation by the special rapporteur, Ahmed Shaheed, and representatives of a number of Western countries, including the United States, Germany, Australia and Brazil, also raised the issue.

But Larijani said the claims about the pastor were wrong. “Three allegations” had been made against Nadarkhani, he said.

“Number one: He was inviting the junior school students, without the consent of the school and their parents, to his home to preach [to] them.” Doing so without the school or parents’ permission was against the law in Iran, he said, “even if he wants to preach them Shi’ite jurisprudence or to teach them Qur’an.”

“Secondly, he converted the underground of his house to a church” without getting official approval, Larijani said. He claimed that it was easier to build a church in Iran than it was to build a mosque in Europe, but that approval was still required.

“Without permission nobody could convert any place to a public area like a church or a mosque.”

“The third allegation is that, in preaching Christianity, this gentleman Nadarkhani, was offending Islam,” Larijani said. “Christianity and Judaism are preached in Iran. We have a number of synagogues; we have a number of churches. But there is no need to humiliate, to offend Islam.”

This is not the first time Iranian officials have claimed new offenses in the Nadarkhani case. Last fall several government and judiciary figures were quoted in pro-regime media as saying the pastor was guilty of violence, rape and “being a Zionist.”

In his presentation to the HRC, Larijani also denied that Nadarkhani was facing execution.

“In the last 33 years after [the Islamic] revolution, no single person has been put to death or executed or pursued for changing his religion from Islam,” he told the council. “Hundreds of people are changing from other religions to Islam. Why we should be so sensitive about a few people to change their religion from Islam?”

An English translation of Farsi court documents states clearly that Nadarkhani was sentenced to death, having been “convicted of turning his back on Islam.”

The document also states 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.”

Ahmed Shaheed, the U.N. “special rapporteur for human rights in Iran,” briefs the Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday, March 12, 2012. (UN Photo by Jean-Marc Ferre)

During Monday’s debate, Shaheed told the council he had seen documents showing that Nadarkhani had been convicted for apostasy, relating to his conversion from Islam to Christianity.

Tiffany Barrans, international legal director for the American Center for Law and Justice – which has been leading international advocacy on Nadarkhani’s behalf – was present during the session in Geneva.

“For the first time,” she said afterwards, “the Iranian regime has admitted to the world community that the case against Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani involves his Christian faith and religious activity.”

Barrans said she was “encouraged that some at the U.N. are working to ensure that Iran immediately and unconditionally releases Pastor Youcef.”

“We hope that nations with influence in Iran will continue reach out to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and request that he immediately and unconditionally release Pastor Youcef,” she said.

“Iran’s continued disregard for its international human rights obligations reflects negatively on all of Islam, a reason for which other Muslim nations should encourage Iran to release Pastor Youcef.”

Notwithstanding Larijani’s claim that no Christian has been put to death in Iran for converting from Islam, an Assemblies of God pastor named Hossein Soodmand was hanged on December 3, 1989, after refusing to recant. Soodmand had converted from Islam to Christianity more than three decades earlier, aged 13.

Although apostasy is not an offense in the Iranian penal code, the country’s constitution includes a clause that says if the basis for a judicial ruling does not exist in the law, judges must turn to “authoritative Islamic sources and authentic fatwa.”

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow