Published October 01, 2011
Iran state media put out a stunning report Saturday claiming that imprisoned Christian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani is facing the death sentence for rape and extortion, not for apostasy and refusing to renounce his religion, as his lawyer, human rights groups and Western news media have reported.
"His crime is not, as some claim, converting others to Christianity," the deputy governor of the Gilan province, Gholomali Rezvani, told Fars, the semi-official state news agency.
"He is guilty of security-related crimes."
The Fars comments were part of a larger Iranian media push to counter reports that Nadarkhani was facing execution for refusing to recant his Christian faith.
“We’re trying to determine if this is the state-controlled media throwing it out there,” said Jordan Sekulow, Executive Director of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ).
“There’s been no mention of any other charges than apostasy in trial documents.”
In a ruling from the Iranian Supreme Court, translated into English by the ACLJ, Nadarkhani was sentenced to execution by hanging for, “turning his back on Islam” and “converting Muslims to Christianity.”
The ruling also alleges that he also participated in Christian worship by holding home church services and baptizing himself and others, effectively breaking Islamic Law.
FoxNews.com obtained a copy of the ruling and there is not a single mention of rape or extortion allegations.
Fox News reported earlier this week that Nadarkhani, 32, who ran a group of house churches in Iran, was facing execution after being convicted last November of apostasy.
Nadarkhani appealed his conviction all the way to the Iranian Supreme Court, and his appeals trial began last Sunday in Gilan province.
It was then that the married father of two young children refused to renounce his religion, according to his lawyer and rights groups monitoring the trial.
“The only question now is whether the Iranian government is actually leveling these new charges against him in court or just throwing out new accusations to try and deflect media attention,” Sekulow said.
“One thing is clear, if Fars News is acknowledging Pastor Youcef's trial, we know that Iran's leaders are fully aware of it too - that's a good thing,” he said.
Nadarkhani’s attorney, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah told The Associated Press Thursday that his client had appeared before the appeals court within the last few days and that he believed there is a “95 percent chance” of acquittal.
Dadkhah said neither Iranian law nor clerics have ever stipulated the death penalty as punishment for converting from Islam to Christianity.
Early Saturday in Iran, ACLJ received report from sources in Iran that Pastor Youcef is alive.
On Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released a statement saying: “The United States is deeply concerned by reports of the Iranian government's continued repression of its people. Despite statements from Iran's Supreme Leader and President claiming support for the rights and freedoms of Iranian citizens and people in the region, the government continues its crackdown on all forms of dissent, belief, and assembly. We are particularly concerned by reports that Christian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani is facing execution on charges of apostasy for refusing to recant his faith.”
Also on Thursday, the White House condemned the conviction and possible death sentence, saying the execution would further demonstrate Iranian authorities "utter disregard" for religious freedom.
“Now as far as what crimes the Iranian government alleged he has committed, you’d have to speak to the Iranian government,” one State Department official said when asked about Saturday’s developments.
“The United States has definitely not been shy and been very vocal about the human rights abuses taking place in Iran. They have a legacy of abuse,” the official said.
Fox News’ Perry Chiaramonte, Stephen Clark, Joshua Miller and The Associated Press contributed to this report.