(ADDS COMMENTS FROM CANNON WHITE)
By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)- The Church of Iran, one of the country's largest house church movements, strongly denies "false reports" that its Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani has been executed but says it is concerned for his safety.
Arabic reports that Nadarkhani, 34, had been hanged emerged Friday, March 8, and in previous days on the Internet and were also picked up by the Anglican Church in neighboring Iraq.
At least one execution report, translated from Arabic, was posted on the Facebook website page of Anglican Cannon Andrew White, affectionately named the "Vicar of Baghdad" for his commitment to religious freedom.
"Who knows it as all [is] so confusing. I am just going by others. There are reports on my site saying different things," White told BosNewsLife in an emailed statement.
White, a recipient of the prestigious American 'International First Freedom Award', has previously been linked to reports on Nadarkhani's alleged execution.
In September, 2012, an Iranian court acquitted Pastor Nadarkhani of the death-sentence carrying charge of "apostasy", or abandoning Islam, but sentenced him to three years for "evangelizing Muslims."
Since he already spent nearly three years in Lakan Prison, the pastor was released after posting bail. He was detained again on Christmas Day and released January 7 to serve the remainder of that sentence.
Church of Iran council member Firouz Khandjani told BosNewsLife there are worries that Iranian authorities are behind the false reports about his execution. "It is unclear whether Cannon White was manipulated" or whether his Facebook page was compromised, Khandjani said.
"While I can confirm that Nadarkhani is with his family in the northern city of Rasht, we are concerned ofcourse," he explained. "Iranian authorities may want to see what kind of reactions they can expect in case of an assassination."
He said a photo shown in the published report of a hanged man was that of political dissident Majid Kavousifar. "He died about three years ago, smiling."
Kjandjani stressed that the reports are aimed at "diverting attention" away from an upcoming trial against five jailed members of his church as "these rumors will be around for days."
On Sunday, March 10, Mohammad Roghangir, Surush Saraie, Eskandar Rezaie, Shahin Lahooti and Massoud Rezaie face the feared Revolutionary Court in the southern city of Shiraz on accusations such as "evangelism", "disturbing public order" and "actions against national security," he confirmed.
They are also charged with Internet activities aimed at undermining Iran's Islamic system.
Khandjani said these "false reports" about the execution of the well-known pastor, a married father of two, are expected to put pressure on Christians facing trial. "It's as if authorities say: 'you better cooperate with us or you will be executed'."
The reports come amid growing pressure from what he called the "political police" on Christians in northern and southern Iran. Khandjani said the "center of persecution is currently in the southern city of Shiraz" where there has been a reported fresh crackdown on house churches.
Additionally, several Iranian Christians have been held and sentenced to long prison terms, including Iranian-born American Pastor Saeed Abedini, who is serving an eight-year prison term in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison, on charges linked to his Christian faith.
Iranian authorities are especially targeting the growing number of Christian converts in the strict Islamic nation, who often worship in underground house churches, BosNewsLife learned.
The government and clerics have defended the policy. Last year, the influential Imam Hojatol-Eslam Seyed Mohammad Saeedi warned against "the enemy's efforts" to establish "house-churches".
Christians say Iran's leadership is afraid to lose its grip on power and Islamic values, amid reports there are at least 100,000 evangelical Christians in the country, though some church groups say the figure may be several times higher.
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