The Iranian Parliament has given provisional approval, by a majority of 196 to seven, to a bill that mandates the death penalty for apostasy from Islam. Until now Iranian judges could impose the death penalty in such cases only on the basis of Islamic law and fatwas, not on the basis of Iranian law.
The bill prescribes a mandatory death sentence for any male Muslim who converts from Islam to another religion, and lifelong imprisonment for female converts from Islam. It also gives the Iranian secular courts authority to convict Iranians living outside the country of crimes relating to Iranian national security. It seems likely that this could be used against the many Iranian Christians who live outside Iran but are involved in evangelism within it. Apostasy from Islam is viewed by most Muslims as equivalent to treason.
The bill, which was drafted earlier this year, is now being reviewed in parliament, giving MPs the opportunity to amend it. Before it becomes law the bill will also be vetted by the Council of Guardians, a twelve-member legislative body with the power to veto any bill that does not conform to Islamic law and the constitution.
Article 23 of the Iranian constitution states that “the investigation of individuals’ beliefs is forbidden, and no one may be molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief”. Iran is also a signatory of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees freedom of belief.
“The provisional approval of this bill has serious implications for Iranian Christian converts, who already face much persecution from the authorities,” says Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, International Director of Barnabas Fund. “It seems that the Iranian government is willing to continue on its course of complete Islamisation at the expense of the most basic human rights and in contradiction to Article 23 of the Iranian constitution. The Iranian Church needs our prayers more than ever.”
The progress of the bill coincides with the formal charging of two Christian converts from Islam, Arash Basirat and Mahmood Matin-Azad, with apostasy at the beginning of August. Some Iranian Christians fear that the authorities are seeking to make an example of the two Christians, or to give the prospective law a “test run”.
Seriousness of persecution underestimated by Western governments
The persecution that Christian converts from Islam face under shari’a law is often not recognised by Western governments. Immigration officers frequently fail to distinguish between Christians who come from a Christian background and those who have converted from Islam. The latter may face real danger to their lives, either from their country’s law enforcement agencies or from their community and family, even if Christians from a Christian background are not at risk. A number of Christian converts from Islam have been refused asylum in Western countries, including Iranians. In the light of this it is encouraging that on 29 September a Syrian Christian couple, both converts from Islam, were granted asylum in Britain. The couple had fled Syria after receiving death threats from their families.
Western ignorance of Muslim attitudes to apostasy can have serious consequences for asylum-seeking converts even without their being deported to their home countries. According to reports last weekend, a Libyan Christian convert from Islam was beaten almost to death by Muslims while at West Drayton Removal Centre in the UK. Twenty-eight-year-old Moftah Abdulghani, who had fled Libya after converting to Christianity, was awaiting a review of his case following the failure of his application for asylum in the UK. His Christian faith became known to the hundreds of Muslim detainees at the same Removal Centre, who began to abuse and threaten him. The assault, allegedly at the hands of Yemeni and Somali detainees, came as Moftah left the makeshift church at the Removal Centre. He is to be moved to another detention centre and kept in solitary confinement for his own safety.