Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani Still Alive; Execution Claim False, Says Group

Amid reports that Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani may have been hanged by Iranian authorities for his faith, a U.K.-based rights group said Friday sources inside Iran have confirmed that he is still alive.

Pictures purporting to show a man being hanged are being attributed as evidence of the pastor's death but the man in the photos is not Pastor Nadarkhani, Christian Solidarity Worldwide noted Friday.

Even as reports that the 34-year-old pastor had been hanged re-emerged Friday, CSW said in a statement that its sources inside Iran have confirmed Nadarkhani is still alive. The rumor initially surfaced last week.

"While we are relieved to report that Pastor Nadarkhani is alive, we urge caution in circulating rumors which must be deeply distressing for his family, his congregation and for many around the world who continue to pray for him," CSW Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said. "Given their possible ramifications, it is vital that reports of such a serious nature are stringently verified before dissemination."

A court in Rasht in northern Gilan Province acquitted Pastor Nadarkhani of apostasy on Sept. 8 last year, but sentenced him to three years for evangelizing Muslims. Since he had already spent close to three years in Lakan Prison, the pastor was released after posting bail. However, he was returned to prison on Dec. 25 on the orders of prison authorities, and released again on Jan. 7.

Nadarkhani, a house church leader from the Church of Iran denomination, was convicted of apostasy in November 2010 and was sentenced to death by hanging. However, the Supreme Court of Iran asked for the retrial of his case by a lower court in Rasht.

The pastor was initially arrested in October 2009 from Rasht for allegedly protesting Islamic instruction in schools for his children, and after he sought to register his church. Authorities, however, later changed the charges to apostasy.

In June 2010, authorities also arrested his wife, Fatemah Pasindedih, to pressure him to convert to Islam. Nadarkhani and his wife were also threatened that their children would be taken away and given to a Muslim family, but they remained firm. Pasindedih was later released.

During the hearings held in September 2011, Nadarkhani was told by authorities that he would be given three opportunities to embrace Islam and renounce his faith in Christianity to have the charges removed. But he refused to do so.