WASHINGTON (EWTN News/CNA)—Iranian Christian pastor Yousef Nadarkhani still faces imminent execution, though officials no longer say he is charged with apostasy.
“I think his life is in jeopardy more than it ever has been throughout this trial,” said Jordan Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based human-rights organization.
“The one glimmer of hope we have is that we’re shedding light on a story that never gets told in Iran until after the fact. We’re able to work on this case to try to do everything we can to try and save his life.”
The 32-year-old pastor has been imprisoned since 2009, after he complained to local authorities about his son being required to read from the Quran at school. He also sought registration for his church, the Jerusalem Post reported.
While Nadarkhani was initially charged with apostasy, on Oct. 1 Iranian state media said he faced the death penalty for rape, extortion and security-related crimes, including being a “Zionist.”
“This individual is guilty, and his crime is not attempting to convert others to Christianity; rather, his crimes are of a security nature,” Deputy Gov. of Gilan Province Ali Rezvani told Fars news agency.
Rezvani said Iran does not punish those who choose another religion, but God will reprimand those who do.
Sekulow said the court hearings “never mentioned any other crime other than apostasy.” A June ruling from Iran’s high court sent the case back to lower courts to determine whether Nadarkhani was a Muslim at the age of 15, the age of adulthood, or if he should be allowed to recant his faith before execution.
After the lower court ruled, Nadarkhani was given three chances to recant his faith, but he refused to do so.
Iranian officials may try to move ahead with “much tougher charges,” including allegations that the pastor is a “Zionist traitor,” Sekulow told EWTN News on Oct. 3.
The term implies that the pastor is a traitor, a spy for Israel and an opponent of the Islamic Republic.
Sekulow charged that Iran has a disproportionate number of executions for rape and drug trafficking, a discrepancy in numbers “well known” among human-rights groups across the political spectrum.
“Amnesty International and ACLJ agree,” Sekulow said. Iranian officials “always use these other criminal charges that won’t get the kind of attention they would in the Western world.
“This is what they do. They bring you in for an initial charge. If it gets picked up and there’s attention on it, they switch it.”
The court has until Wednesday or Thursday to issue a written ruling, but even that may come after the execution.
Sekulow said the Iranian reaction was “good news,” in a sense, because it showed that the issue was on the government’s radar.
He reported that Nadarkhani’s attorney has asked the American Center for Law and Justice to keep the case in the public eye. The case has prompted criticism from prominent U.S. officials such as House Speaker John Boehner and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Sekulow said the Iranian government has a “very bizarre relationship” with the Christian world. There are a few officially sanctioned churches in Iran which serve those who were never Muslim. These tend to be Orthodox churches, and their congregants are a very small percentage of the population.
While these churches face persecution in times of political upheaval, evangelical Christians and adherents of the Bahai religion tend to face the most oppression.
Three hundred Christians have been arrested so far in 2011, Sekulow said. Sometimes they are released, and sometimes they are tortured. A few are still awaiting charges.
“If you are not part of the state-sanctioned Islam, a version of Shi’a Islam, then you are an enemy of the state. This applies to Sunni Muslims, evangelical Christians; anyone who is left. You’re not seen as on the side of the country.”
Sekulow said that one Iranian pastor described the situation as an unwritten “apartheid” system like that which once governed a South Africa segregated along racial lines.
Even an explicit “apartheid” system would be preferable for providing regularity, that pastor said. But at present, Iranian Christians “don’t know when they are going to start these waves of arrests.”