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From Death Sentence to Rape Charges, Iranian Pastor’s Case Is Rare—and Disputed

Reports differ on Nadarkhani’s status and next steps.

In response to international condemnation for Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani's death sentence, the Iranian government has changed its story.

Though Nadarkhani was found guilty and sentenced to death for apostasy in 2010, the semi-official Iranian news agency Fars News reported on September 30 that he will now be executed for Zionism, rape, and extortion. The Iranian Embassy in London also issued a statement, saying the Iranian Court of Appeals had made no official ruling in Nadarkhani's case. But Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) has official documents that prove otherwise, said Khataza Gondwe, CSW team leader in Africa and the Middle East.

"CSW is in possession of original court documents that state clearly that the charge against Pastor Nadarkhani was apostasy, and that the death sentence for apostasy was upheld by the Supreme Court," Gondwe said. "These belated efforts to fabricate unsubstantiated charges against the pastor appear to be a desperate effort to justify the passing of a sentence of death, and reflect badly on the Iranian regime."

Last week, CT reported that after Nadarkhani repeatedly refused to recant his faith, numerous religious freedom organizations lobbied for his sentence to be dropped. The White House condemned the conviction on September 29, stating, "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."

That international attention is causing the Iranian government to change its story about the case, said Jonathan Racho, regional manager of Africa and South Asia for International Christian Concern (ICC). "Because of the international media attention and because of the pressure that the Iranian government is getting from different angles and different agencies, [government officials] are making false statements," he said.

Though it is unclear what Iran's next steps will be in the case, Racho said there are concerns the government is waiting for the international attention to fade before proceeding. "It looks like a strategy so that this news will die down and people will forget about it, and then at some point they will go ahead and kill him if he perseveres in his faith in Christ," he said.

However, Nadarkhani's lawyer said he thinks the case will end soon, as early as Saturday. "I am optimistic that the Supreme Court in Qom will drop the case altogether," Mohammad Ali Dadkhah told Reuters on October 3. "I am 95 percent sure about it." (Dadkhah told reporters that Nadarkhani had not yet been given a death sentence.)

Nadarkhani would be the first Christian executed through Iranian legal process since 1990, making this case particularly unusual, said Todd Nettleton, director of media development at Voice of the Martyrs. While it's still too early to tell if this is the start of a trend, there has been a definite increase in Christian persecution in Iran, he said. However, as CT reported in June, Iran's strategy of increasing persecution against Christians is likely backfiring.

Issa Dibaj, an Iranian Christian, told CT, "In fact, in places like Tehran and more educated communities, if you say, 'I have become a Christian,' they will respect you because of your courage and your independent thinking."

Since Iran is an Islamic state, Nettleton said the Iranian government is partially responsible for the church's rapid growth. "When the people see failure in the government, they perceive it as a failure of Islam, and they're hungry for something else," he said. "That is making Iranian people very, very open to the Gospel, and so the church is growing very rapidly."

Nadarkhani is not the first pastor whose death sentence has stirred international reactions, nor is he the first to be accused of rape by a restrictive state that had initially focused on religious issues. In August 2001, the Chinese government arrested Pastor Shengliang Gong, founder of the South China Church and sentenced him to death for rape, arson, and leading a cult. Several witnesses claimed they were tortured and sexually assaulted until they signed the statements, and the case received international attention, including an intervention from the Bush administration. As a result, Gong was given a retrial and was sentenced to life in prison.

Despite the passage of time, many aspects of the case still remain unclear. In 2005, one of the star witnesses in the case escaped from China and subsequently denied Gong raped her. But in 2007, China Aid Association (CAA) received a letter allegedly written by Gong claiming he was indeed guilty of some of the charges, including the allegations of sexual misconduct. CAA conducted an independent investigation and could find no evidence the letter was fabricated. CAA has since lost touch with the church’s leaders, partially as a result of that report, CAA president Bob Fu said.

However, Gong's treatment during his time in prison is unacceptable, regardless of his guilt, Fu said. While there has been no indication that Nadarkhani has been tortured during his time in jail, the two cases highlight the similarities of the Iranian and Chinese governments toward Christians, he said. "[These cases] show if you’re not submitting to the total control of the totalitarian state power, you will be regarded as the enemy … and they will do whatever they can to discredit you, to punish you. That's how the game is played."

Related Elsewhere:

Christianity Today earlier covered Nadarkhani's conviction and the White House response.

Earlier coverage of Iran includes reporting how persecution has increased Christianity's appeal and how western missiologists viewed the push for U.S. sanctions against Iran.

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