A missions ministry that has been closely following the case of an Iranian Christian pastor facing execution says the Iranian government is trying to confuse and deceive the Western media with conflicting reports.
Fars news agency, the Iranian government’s unofficial mouthpiece, reported that Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani is not on death row for apostasy, but for crimes against national security. Those crimes include rape and extortion.
The claims were made to Fars by Gholomali Rezvani, deputy governor of Iran’s Gilan province. Present Truth Ministries called the report "perplexing and dishonest."
"We have the original written verdict from both the provincial court in Gilan and the Supreme Court branch in Qom that detail apostasy," the ministry wrote on its website Friday.
Nadarkhani was arrested on Oct. 13, 2009, after protesting the government's decision to force all children, including his own Christian children, to read the Quran.
He was initially charged for protesting but the charges were later changed to apostasy and evangelism to Muslims. In 2010, he was sentenced to death and the ruling was upheld by the Supreme Court of Iran this year.
This week, the Christian pastor was given the chance to recant his faith in court but he refused to do so and now awaits a final written verdict, which is expected in a matter of days.
His attorney, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, was surprised by Fars' new report, and stated that he only defended Nadarkhani against the death sentence in the case of his charge of apostasy.
"If he is under trial in another court on other charges, I am not aware," the attorney told International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. "The charge the court staff announced that I defended during several different court sessions was apostasy and no other charge."
Fars reported Rezvani as saying on Friday, "The subject of the crime and this individual’s death sentence are not belief-based and related to his religion. Nobody is executed in our regime for choosing a religion, but he is a Zionist who has security crimes. Right now, carrying out the sentence is not a definitive matter."
While Fars accused Western media of producing false reports about Nadarkhani, the pastor's attorney stressed that just this week "the charge of which the court informed him was about his apostasy," as reported by International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
Iran is listed as the second worst persecutor of Christians in the world, behind North Korea, by Open Doors, a ministry that supports persecuted Christians. The ministry reported just last month that the Iranian government is stepping up its watch on Christians and doing its best to squelch the growing house church movement there.
Nadarkhani served as the leader of a 400-strong house church movement in Rasht.
U.S. lawmakers and Christian leaders have condemned the Iranian government for refusing the pastor's basic right to religious freedom and have called for his release.
Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, stated on Friday, "It is unfathomable to most thinking people that a person in the 21st Century can be put to death simply for espousing a faith that differs from that of his nation's ruling powers."
Graham had harsher words for the international community and its silence.
"A man is sentenced to be killed for the 'crime' of a sincere belief in Jesus Christ – a sentence in clear violation of international law. So where is the international outrage?" he posed.
"We, as U.S. citizens, must join our voices to continue to press world leaders to take action. Pastor Nadarkhani's life hangs in the balance."
The National Association of Evangelicals also released a statement, calling Iran’s threatened execution of Pastor Nadarkhani "religious persecution at its worst."