Iran: July 14, 2008. A plan is being discussed by lawmakers in Iran that would require the death penalty for anyone who leaves Islam for Christianity or someone who promotes such a conversion even on the Internet, according to a new report from Compass Direct News.
Those discussions of a penal code that was drafted earlier this year bring urgency to situations such as the two men arrested recently and under interrogation for that very crime, the report said.
The report said Iranian authorities arrested a number of converts to Christianity in the city of Shiraz about two months ago on suspicion of "apostasy."
Arash Bandari, 44, and Mahmood Matin, 52, were arrested at the time along with 13 other Muslim converts to Christianity. But while the other 13 were told they have a court case pending and then released, Bandari and Matin have been held ever since.
The 13 who have been released have not been told of any specific charges, but they report the nature of their questioning gives them reason to think the allegations may include apostasy and political crimes.
The other two, Bandari and Matin, have been held almost incommunicado. Matin's wife was able to see him for several minutes on June 24, when the prisoner told his wife "there had been a misunderstanding and that he could not teach Christianity any more," Compass reported.
"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 said, according to a Compass source whose identity was concealed.
Compass noted that under the existing sharia laws in Iran, the death penalty is available for the crime of apostasy, but not required.
The proposal, however, would change that.
"If passed, the penal code drafted last January would require execution of any Muslim who converts to Christianity," Compass said. Such punishments could not 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," Compass reported.
Iran's Members of Parliament voted only a week ago to discuss the plan as a priority, according to Agence France-Press, which described the proposal as to "toughen punishment for harming mental security in society."
Alarmingly, the report also documented that the death penalty would be imposed for "establishing weblogs and sites promotion corruption, prostitution and apostasy."
"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," Compass reported. "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."
Executions in Iran totaled 317 in 2007, up from 177 in 2006, and human rights groups say such punishments are excessive. Tehran insists death is an "effective deterrent," according to AFP.
"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," Compass said.
The attackers in those cases never have been brought to justice.