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|Iran Detains Ex-Muslims for ‘Apostasy’|
|Police interrogate converts to Christianity about faith, political activity
by Peter Lamprecht
Iranian authorities have detained two converts to Christianity in the southern city of Shiraz for eight weeks on suspicion of “apostasy,” or leaving Islam. In Iran, apostasy is a crime that can be punishable by death.
Mahmood Matin, 52, and Arash Bandari, 44, remain imprisoned in a secret police detention center known by its address, Sepah Street 100, located in the center of Shiraz since their arrest on May 15 (previously reported as May 13).
A draft penal code under discussion in Iran’s parliament this month may make the death penalty obligatory for those who leave Islam or use the Internet to encourage others to do so (see sidebar below).
During a visit on June 24, Matin’s wife was able to speak with him for five minutes as officials listened in, a source told Compass. Seated in a dimly lit room behind a glass window, the prisoner told his wife that there had been a misunderstanding and that he could not teach Christianity any more.
“They are pushing me to tell them that I am connected to a church outside [Iran] and that I am receiving a salary, but I told them that I am doing it on my own,” he told his wife, according to a source who requested anonymity for security reasons.
Despite Matin’s claims that he was being well treated, his wife told the source she believed otherwise.
“He was just trying to make me calm; that’s what I could see because he’s my husband and I know his face,” Matin’s wife said, according to the source. The source said that Matin was not even aware where he was being held until his wife told him during the visit.
The June 24 meeting was the first and only face-to-face contact Matin’s family has had with him since his arrest in May.
Matin and Bandari were detained with 13 other Muslim converts to Christianity while meeting together in a park in Shiraz. Police confiscated the group’s cell phones and “temporarily” released everyone except Matin and Bandari over the subsequent days.
According to the source, the 13 have been told they have an ongoing court case against them. They remain under house arrest and have been called in for questioning about alleged political activity and Christian faith.
Officials have not informed the 13 released Christians of the specific charges against them. But the nature of their questioning has led them to believe that they are suspected of apostasy and political crimes against the government.
Matin telephoned his wife several weeks after his arrest to tell her that he had been charged with apostasy and to request that she acquire a lawyer to take his case. But on June 22, she received a call from an official telling her that Matin did not need legal representation and inviting her to visit her husband in Shiraz.
“The caller did not say who they were, just that they were from the secret police and that the family could visit Matin on June 24 between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m.,” the source said. He said that Matin’s wife traveled 17 hours by bus from her home in Tehran to visit her jailed husband.
Matin has had no further contact with his wife and three children, ages 22, 18 and 12, since the June 24 jail visit.
Mandatory Death for ‘Apostates’ Debated in Iranian Parliament
A penal code that would mandate the death penalty for those who promote corruption, prostitution and apostasy even on the Internet is expected to go to debate soon in Iran’s parliament.
If passed, the penal code drafted last January would require execution of any Muslim who converts to Christianity. Under sharia (Islamic) law, apostasy is one of several “crimes” that can be punishable by death, although Islamic court judges are not required to hand down such a sentence.
The draft of the penal code under consideration explicitly sets death as a fixed punishment that cannot be changed, reduced or annulled.
Many believe that the government intends to use the proposed penal code to clamp down on the surge in conversions in Iran over the last few years. Commentators have called the surge a “mass exodus” from Islam, which in its Iranian Shiite version imposes harsh limitations on lifestyle and personal freedoms.
On July 2 Iran’s Members of Parliament voted to discuss as a priority the draft bill that seeks to “toughen punishment for harming mental security in society,” Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported last week. The news agency noted that the draft bill also includes the death penalty for “establishing weblogs and sites promoting corruption, prostitution and apostasy.”
According to the current penal code, the death sentence is already applicable to rape, adultery and armed robbery, among other crimes. The draft adds apostasy and cyber-crimes to the list and stipulates that those convicted of these crimes should be punished as “mohareb” (enemy of God) and “corrupt on the earth,” according to AFP.
Over the last few years, the Internet and media such as television have been conduits of information on Christianity and are feared as sources of “corruption” of the Iranian people. The Internet is widely used in Iran despite restricted access for thousands of websites with “immoral” content or content – including Christian ones – deemed as insulting religion and promoting political dissent.
The number of executions in Iran reached 317 last year, up from 177 recorded by Amnesty International in 2006. Human rights organizations have criticized Iran for making excessive use of the death penalty, but Tehran insists it is an effective deterrent that is carried out only after an exhaustive judicial process, reported the AFP.
In a statement earlier this year, the European Union (EU) criticized the penal code draft and particularly Section Five on the death penalty for apostasy. The EU said this section and other parts of the code violated Tehran’s commitments under international human rights conventions.
Christians in particular have suffered persecution in Iran since the Islamic revolution in 1979. No converts to Christianity have been convicted of “apostasy” since international pressure forced officials to drop the death sentence of Christian convert Mehdi Dibaj in 1994. But in the years following the convert’s release, Dibaj and four other Protestant pastors, including converts and those working with converts, have been brutally murdered.
The murderers of the Christians have never been brought to justice, and local believers suspect the government played a role in the killings.
Christian converts are regularly arrested and imprisoned without due process, tortured and placed under surveillance. Muslims who have embraced Christianity have no right to practice their newfound faith, and the printing of the Bible in Farsi, the national language, has been banned.
Source: Compass Direct News, Santa Ana, California/USA, and Istanbul/Turkey. A partner agency of APD.