Iran’s government is distributing various reports about the legal status of Christian pastor Yousef (also spelled Yousof and Youcef) Nadarkhani. The case has attracted high-level Western protests, including from the White House, and thousands of Westerners are signing petitions on his behalf. This attention is something Tehran had apparently not expected and finds embarrassing. The government is switching its tack and throwing new charges of “Zionism” and/or rape and embezzlement at the still-imprisoned pastor.
A copy of this 2010 Supreme Court ruling was obtained by various groups, including the American Center for Law & Justice, which has posted it. In it, apostasy is the only charge leveled against Nadarkhani. Last week, the defense lawyer reported that the pastor had been pressed three or four times by an Iranian court to recant his Christian faith but that he had refused and therefore would not be reprieved from being hanged.
Nevertheless, in the following statement posted last Friday by Iran’s embassy to the U.K. (Iran does not have diplomatic relations with the U.S.), government officials claim that the pastor has not in fact been sentenced to death and that the court has not reached a verdict of guilt:
The Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in London renounces the published news regarding the death penalty for Mr. Yousof Nadarkhani and announces that the Court of Appeal in the Islamic Republic of Iran has not issued any verdict on his case. Accordingly, the allegations to the issue of the death penalty for the above mentioned, are unsubstantiated.
On the same day, Fars New Agency, which has been linked to Iran’s feared Revolutionary Guard, reported that Pastor Yousef will be put to death instead for several charges of rape and extortion, not the apostasy charge on which he was tried. According to Fars, the West has tried to lay blame on Iran by falsely reporting on the accusation against him.
Also, the governor of the province where he has been charged and tried told Fars News Agency that the major charges against him are Zionism and threats to national security. This may mean the pastor will be condemned for spying for Israel.
Like apostasy, the charges of rape and Zionism both carry the death penalty in Iran.
China has frequently used similar types of criminal charges to imprison Christian leaders who refuse to submit to government religious oversight. If the Fars reports are accurate, this would seem to be a hasty afterthought to do something similar.
— Nina Shea is director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and co-author, with Paul Marshall, of Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedoms Worldwide (Oxford University Press, November 2011).