TEHRAN (BP) -- Iranian pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, originally arrested on apostasy charges and sentenced to death, now could be accused of Zionism and could be in more danger than ever, one of his chief American advocates said Oct. 3.
"The charge of being a Zionist and thus a traitor, terms that imply he is some kind of spy for Israel and opponent of the Islamic Republic, is among the most serious accusations that can be made in Iran," Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice, wrote in an update on the group's website.
Sekulow said Zionism is the charge Iran levies "to justify executing people who were actually arrested, imprisoned and tried on completely different charges."
"While these new charges may be, as I said before, an attempt to deflect media and international attention, the fact that it is possible the pastor could actually face these charges means that his life is in more danger now than it has been at any other time since the trial began," Sekulow wrote.
It is also becoming more difficult to confirm that Nadarkhani is still alive, Sekulow said.
"Throughout Pastor Nadarkhani's two-year imprisonment, he has traditionally only been permitted to have one visitor per week. This is one barrier we have to overcome each day when we try to get solid confirmation that he is alive," he wrote. "We can confirm that our contacts in Iran have reported that as of yesterday evening, Pastor Youcef was still alive, but that is becoming more and more difficult to confirm each day."
The Britain-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide said Oct. 2 Nadarkhani's "life hangs in the balance" after receiving a death sentence for converting to Christianity. More than 30,000 people had emailed Iranian embassies worldwide on his behalf, the group said.
Iran's state media reported Oct. 1 that Nadarkhani was facing the death sentence for rape and extortion, not for apostasy, though it did not elaborate on the charges. Reports also surfaced in the Fars News Agency that he was a Zionist and had committed security crimes.
The ACLJ obtained a ruling from the Iranian Supreme Court in which Nadarkhani, 32, was sentenced to hanging for "turning his back on Islam" at age 19.
The ruling, which was translated into English, also said Nadarkhani "has often participated in Christian worship and organized home church services, evangelizing and has been baptized and baptized others, converting Muslims to Christianity."
Furthermore, Nadarkhani "has confessed that in his heart and in his actions he has denied being Muslim and converted to Christianity and has advertised and encouraged other Muslims to convert to Christianity," the translation of the ruling said. "And because of advertising and pastoring a church repeatedly professed his Christian faith and denied the prophet Mohammad and the 12th Imam and denied the entire Koran and truth of the Koran."
FoxNews.com said Oct. 1 it had obtained a copy of the ruling and "there is not a single mention of rape or extortion allegations." The new charges are false, the pastor's defenders say.
"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 told Fox News. "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."
The White House has urged Nadarkhani's release, saying a death sentence by Iran "violates the religious values they claim to defend," and at least 10 members of Congress, including Speaker of the House John Boehner, have released statements calling on Iran to grant Nadarkhani an unconditional release. Six more Congressional leaders have sent a letter directly to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei calling for his release, the ACLJ said.
The U.S. State Department, in a statement Sept. 30, said it remains "deeply concerned by reports of the Iranian government's continued repression of its people" and "particularly concerned" about Nadarkhani. The ACLJ said the State Department should do more, and the group is circulating a petition asking Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to "stop this ultimate human rights abuse" by calling Iran to overturn the death sentence.
Todd Nettleton, a spokesman for Voice of the Martyrs, told CNN the rumored charges of rape and extortion prove that international attention on the issue is working.
"They are feeling the attention, they are feeling the weight of the eyes of the world watching how they are treating this man," Nettleton said. "I am dumbfounded, though that at this stage in the game, this is what they would trot out."
Nadarkhani's refusal to recant his faith has inspired Christians worldwide. The ACLJ reported one of his court exchanges.
"Repent means to return. What should I return to? To the blasphemy that I had before my faith in Christ?" he asked.
"To the religion of your ancestors, Islam," the judge reportedly replied.
"I cannot," Nadarkhani responded.
Erin Roach is assistant editor of Baptist Press.
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