Proposed amendment reportedly shot down after international outcry.

LOS ANGELES, June 29 (Compass Direct News) – A member of Iran’s Parliament reportedly revealed last week that the country’s Parliamentary Committee has stricken the mandatory death penalty for those who leave Islam from proposals for an amended penal code.

Citing a BBC Persian news service report on Tuesday (June 23), United Kingdom-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) announced on Friday (June 26) that a member of Iran’s Legal and Judicial Committee of Parliament, Ali Shahrokhi, had told the Iranian state news agency (IRNA) of the decision to eliminate the mandatory death penalty amendment, which had drawn international protests.

The Parliamentary Committee had come under intense international pressure to drop clauses from the Islamic Penal Code Bill that allowed stoning and made death the mandatory punishment for apostates.

The new penal code was originally approved in September 2008 by a preliminary parliamentary vote of 196-7.

In Friday’s statement, CSW said that the bill must now pass through a final parliamentary vote before being sent to Iran’s most influential body, the Guardian Council, which will rule on it.

The council is made up of six conservative theologians appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by Parliament. This body has the power to veto any bill it deems inconsistent with the constitution and Islamic law.

The Christian and Baha’i communities of Iran are most likely to be affected by this decision. Iran has been criticized for its treatment of Baha’is, Zoroastrians and Christians, who have all suffered under the current regime.

Joseph Grieboski, president of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, said the timing of the announcement of the decision during protests over contested elections might not be coincidental.

“Were the regime to maintain [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad’s presidency then pass and enforce a restrictive penal code, the international pressure on Iran would be unbearable for the regime,” said Grieboski. “I do not consider it a sign of opening up. Instead, I see it as a sign of self-preservation.”

Security Backlash

Huge protests over the election results demonstrated considerable opposition to the Iranian government’s heavy-handed tactics, and although the official churches have taken no official stance, many Christians have supported the opposition, according to sources connected to social networking sites.

In the face of the massive protests, a spokesman for the foreign ministry, Hassan Qashqavi, released a statement condemning Western involvement in Iranian affairs and accusing the BBC and Voice of America networks of spreading “anarchy and vandalism.”

This passing of blame bodes ill for minorities in the country, including Christians, whom the Iranian government sees as pawns of the West; they could expect even harsher treatment in a feared post-election clamp-down.

“Since minorities, especially Baha’is and Christians, are often seen as fronts for the West, we can expect that they will feel the greatest backlash by the regime during the protests, and I would argue an even worse crackdown on them if Ahmadinejad and [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei come out of this,” said Grieboski.

An Iranian Christian who requested anonymity told Compass that both Christians and Iranians as a whole were tired of the dictatorial regime and asked for prayers for relief.

“The people are really tired, they have no hope, mentally, financially, spiritually, it is really difficult to live in Iran,” the source said. “You can’t have a private life, you can’t make a decision about what you believe, women can’t even decide what to wear. We just pray for the whole nation.”

The Iranian source was reticent to predict how the government might react to Christians following the elections but said that if there were a reaction, they could be among the first victims.

“So what the reaction of the government will be we can’t be 100 percent sure,” the source said, “but they could have a very radical reaction.”

Iranian Christians Maryam Rostampour, 27, and Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad, 30, who were arrested on March 5 for their Christian activities, are still held in the notorious Evin Prison. The facility has drawn criticism for its human rights violations and executions in recent years.

Compass has learned that the women have been placed in solitary confinement.

Report from Compass Direct News


Accepting Islamic law in exchange for peace leaves many uncertain, fearful.

ISTANBUL, March 27 (Compass Direct News) – Just over a month since Pakistan’s fertile Swat Valley turned into a Taliban stronghold where sharia (Islamic law) rules, the fate of the remaining Christians in the area is uncertain.

Last month, in an effort to end a bloody two-year battle, the Islamabad administration struck a deal with Taliban forces surrendering all governance of Swat Valley in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Sources told Compass that after the violence that has killed and displaced hundreds, an estimated 500 Christians remain in the area. Traditionally these have been low-skilled workers, but younger, more educated Christians work as nurses, teachers and in various other professions.

The sole Church of Pakistan congregation in Swat, consisting of 40 families, has been renting space for nearly 100 years. The government has never given them permission to buy land in order to build a church building.

An associate pastor of the church in central Swat told Yousaf Benjamin of the National Commission for Justice and Peace that with the bombing of girls schools at the end of last year, all Christian families migrated to nearby districts. After the peace deal and with guarded hope for normalcy and continued education for their children, most of the families have returned to their homes but are reluctant to attend church.

The associate pastor, who requested anonymity, today told sources that “people don’t come to the church as they used to come before.” He said that although the Taliban has made promises of peace, the Christian community has yet to believe the Muslim extremists will hold to them.

“The people don’t rely on Taliban assurances,” said Benjamin.

Last week the associate pastor met with the third in command of the main Taliban militant umbrella group in Pakistan, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, Kari Abdullah, and requested land in order to build a church. Abdullah reportedly agreed, saying that Islam is a religion of peace and equality, and that his group intended to provide equal opportunities to the religious communities of Swat.

The Catholic Church in Swat is located in a school compound that was bombed late last year. Run by nuns and operated under the Catholic Church Peshawar Diocese, the church has been closed for the last two years since insurgents have been fighting government led forces, source said.

Parliamentarian Shahbaz Bhatti said Christians and the few Hindus in Swat valley have lived under terror and harassment by the Taliban since insurgents began efforts to seize control of the region. He met with a delegation of Christians from Swat last month who said they were concerned about their future, but Bhatti said only time will tell how the changes will affect Christians.

“The Christian delegation told me that they favor the peace pact if indeed it can bring peace, stability and security to the people living there,” he said. “But they also shared their concern that if there is enforcement of sharia, what will be their future? But we will see how it will be implemented.”

Although there have been no direct threats against Christians since the establishment of the peace accord, some advocates fear that it may only be a matter of time.

“These days, there are no reports of persecution in Swat,” Lahore-based reporter Felix Qaiser of Asia News told Compass by phone, noting the previous two years of threatening letters, kidnappings and aggression against Christians by Islamic extremists. “But even though since the implementation of sharia there have been no such reports, we are expecting them. We’re expecting this because other faiths won’t be tolerated.”

Qaiser also expressed concern about the treatment of women.

“They won’t be allowed to move freely and without veils,” he said. “And we’re very much concerned about their education there.”

In the past year, more than 200 girls schools in Swat were reported to have been burned down or bombed by Islamic extremists.

Remaining girls schools were closed down in January but have been re-opened since the peace agreement in mid-February. Girls under the age of 13 are allowed to attend.

Since the deal was struck, seven new sharia judges have been installed, and earlier this month lawyers were trained in the nuances of Islamic law. Those not trained are not permitted to exercise their profession. As of this week, Non-Governmental Organizations are no longer permitted in the area and vaccinations have been banned.

“These are the first fruits of Islamic law, and we’re expecting worse things – Islamic punishment such as cutting off hands, because no one can dictate to them,” Qaiser said. Everything is according to their will and their own interpretation of Islamic law.”


Launch Point for Taliban

Analysts and sources on the ground have expressed skepticism in the peace deal brokered by pro-Taliban religious leader Maulana Sufi Muhammad, who is also the leader of Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi. The insurgent, who has long fought for implementation of sharia in the region, has also fought alongside the Taliban against U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

He was imprisoned and released under a peace deal in April 2008 in an effort to restore normalcy in the Swat Valley. Taliban militants in the Swat area are under the leadership of his son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah.

The agreement to implement sharia triggered alarm around the world that militants will be emboldened in the northwest of Pakistan, a hotbed for Taliban and Al-Qaeda extremists fighting Western forces in Afghanistan and bent on overthrowing its government.

Joe Grieboski of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy said the peace deal makes Talibanization guaranteed by law, rendering it impossible to return to a liberal democracy or any guarantee of fundamental rights.

“The government in essence ceded the region to the Taliban,” said Grieboski. “Clerical rule over the region will fulfill the desires of the extremists, and we’ll see the region become a copy of what Afghanistan looked like under Taliban rule.”

This can only mean, he added, that the Taliban will have more power to promulgate their ideology and power even as the Pakistani administration continues to weaken.

“Unfortunately, this also creates a safe launching off point for Taliban forces to advance politically, militarily and ideologically into other areas of the country,” said Grieboski. “The peace deal further demonstrates the impotence of [Asif Ali] Zardari as president.”

Grieboski said the peace deal further demonstrates that Pakistani elites – and President Zardari in particular – are less concerned about fundamental rights, freedom and democracy than about establishing a false sense of security in the country.

“This peace deal will not last, as the extremists will demand more and more, and Zardari and the government have placed themselves in a weakened position and will once again have to give in,” said Grieboski.

Sohail Johnson, chief coordinator of advocacy group Sharing Life Ministry Pakistan, said he fears that militants in Swat will now be able to freely create training centers and continue to attack the rest of Pakistan.

“They will become stronger, and this will be the greatest threat for Christians living in Pakistan,” said Johnson.

Thus far the government has not completely bowed to Taliban demands for establishment of full sharia courts, and it is feared that the insurgents may re-launch violent attacks on civilians until they have full judicial control.

“The question of the mode of implementation has not yet been decided, because the Taliban want their own qazis [sharia judges] and that the government appointed ones should quit,” said lawyer Khalid Mahmood, who practices in the NWFP.

Mahmood called the judiciary system in Swat “collapsed” and echoed the fear that violence would spread in the rest of the country.

“They will certainly attack on the neighboring districts,” he said.

Earlier today, close to the Swat Valley in Khyber, a suicide bomber demolished a mosque in Jamrud, killing at least 48 people and injuring more than 150 others during Friday prayers. Pakistani security officials reportedly said they suspected the attack was retaliation for attempts to get NATO supplies into Afghanistan to use against Taliban fighters and other Islamist militants.

Report from Compass Direct News


Tribunal tries to save face by claiming pastors never converted from Islam.

LOS ANGELES, October 30 (Compass Direct News) – An Iranian judge has ordered the release of two pastors charged with “apostasy,” or leaving Islam, but the defendants said the ruling was based on the court’s false claim that they confessed to having never converted to Christianity.

Mahmoud Matin Azad, 52, said he and Arash Basirat, 44, never denied their Christian faith and believe the court statement resulted from the judge seeking a face-saving solution to avoid convicting them of apostasy, which soon could automatically carry the death penalty.

Azad and Basirat were arrested May 15 and acquitted on Sept. 25 by Branch 5 of the Fars Criminal Court in Shiraz, 600 kilometers (373 miles) south of Tehran.

A court document obtained by human rights organization Amnesty International stated, “Both had denied that they had converted to Christianity and said that they remain Muslim, and accordingly the court found no further evidence to the contrary.”

Azad vehemently denied the official court statement, saying the notion of him being a Muslim never even came up during the trial.

“The first question that they asked me was, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I am a pastor pastoring a house church in Iran,” he told Compass. “All my [court] papers are about Christianity – about my activity, about our church and everything.”

Members of Azad’s house church confirmed that the government’s court statement of his rejection of Christianity was false.

“His faith wasn’t a secret – he was a believer for a long, long time,” said a source who preferred to remain anonymous.

During one court hearing, Azad said, a prosecutor asked him, “Did you change your religion?” Azad responded, “I didn’t have religion for 43 years. Now I have religion, I have faith in God and I am following God.”

If the court misstated that the two men said they were Muslims, it likely came from political pressure from above, said Joseph Grieboski, founder of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy.

“If the court did in fact lie about what he said, I would think it’s part of the larger political game that [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and his factions are trying to play to garner political support for him,” Grieboski said.

Ahmadinejad, who is facing re-election, has approval ratings hovering above the single digits and has faced international criticism for the apostasy law.

“What he does not need is bad press and bad political positioning,” Grieboski said. “I would be shocked if [the acquittal] were not somehow involved in the presidential campaign.”

International condemnation of the law and of the proposed mandatory death penalty for those who leave Islam come as Iran faces new rounds of U.N. economic sanctions for uranium enrichment.

Upon his release, Azad said that no reason was given for the court freeing him and Basirat. Disputing the court’s allegation that they claimed to be Muslims, Azad said that he told his attorney, “Two things I will never say. First, I will not lie; second, I will not deny Jesus my Lord and my Savior.”

The two men are grateful for their release, he said, but they worry that their acquittal might merely be a tactic by the Iranian government to wait for them to re-engage in Christian activity and arrest them again. Their release could also put anyone with whom they associate in danger, Azad said.

There is another worry that the government could operate outside the law in order to punish them, as some believe has happened in the past. The last case of an apostasy conviction in Iran was that of Christian convert Mehdi Dibaj in 1994. Following his release, however, Dibaj and four other Protestant pastors, including converts and those working with converts, were brutally murdered.

A similar motivation could have prompted the judge to release the two pastors. Leaving their deaths up to outside forces would abrogate him from personally handing down the death penalty, Grieboski said.

“Even in Iran no judge wants to be the one to hand down the death penalty for apostasy,” he said. “The judge’s motivation [in this hearing] could have been for his own face-saving reasons, for the possibility of arresting more people, or even for the possibility that the two defendants will be executed using social means rather than government means. Any of these are perfectly legitimate possibilities when we start talking about the Iranian regime.”

The court case against Azad and Basirat came amid a difficult time for local non-Muslims as the Iranian government attempted to criminalize apostasy from Islam.

On Sept. 9 the Iranian parliament approved a new penal code by a vote of 196-7 calling for a mandatory death sentence for apostates, or those who leave Islam. The individual section of the penal code containing the apostasy bill must be passed for it to go into law.

As recently as late August, the court was reluctant to release the two men on bail. At one point Azad’s attorney anticipated the bail to be between $40,000 and $50,000, but the judge set the bail at $100,000.

The original charge against Azad and Basirat of “propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran” was dropped, but replaced with the more serious charge of apostasy.

Those close to the two pastors were relieved at the acquittal since they expected their detention to be lengthy.

“We had anticipated [Azad’s incarceration] would be a while, and then we got this notice that they were released,” said a family friend of Azad. “We were shocked by that.”

Azad described his four-month incarceration in positive terms. He said that while in prison he was treated with respect by the authorities because he explained that he was not interested in political matters and was a pastor.  

Report from Compass Direct News


International pressure sought against mandatory death penalty for ‘apostates.’

LOS ANGELES, September 23 (Compass Direct News) – Without international pressure there is little to stop the Iranian government from ratifying a bill that will make “apostasy,” or leaving Islam, a capital crime, say human rights groups and experts.

On Sept. 9 the Iranian parliament approved a new penal code by a vote of 196-7 calling for a mandatory death sentence for apostates, or those who leave Islam. The Christian and Baha’i communities of Iran are most likely to be affected by this decision.

“Unless there is a coordinated and very strong effort from the international community to place pressure on Iran for this, I don’t think there will be anything stopping the Iranian government from passing this legislation,” Joseph Grieboski, founder of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, told Compass.

The bill still has to make its way through Iran’s policy-making process before it becomes law. Parliament is reviewing it article by article, after which it will be sent to Iran’s most influential body, the Guardian Council, which will rule on it.

The council is made up of six conservative theologians appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by parliament. This body has the power to veto any bill it deems inconsistent with the constitution and Islamic law.

In the case of the new penal code, however, which appears to be a return to a strict adherence of sharia (Islamic law), sources said they do not expect the Guardian Council to reject the penal code.

The timing of the debate on the penal code is not coincidental, said Grieboski. While the international community is focused on Iran’s nuclear activities, he said, the Iranian government appears to be taunting the West with deliberate human rights violations.

“Because of the nuclear issues, ones like these get put on the backburner, which means that the regime can move with great liberty to install legislation like this with impunity, because the nuclear issue gives them cover,” said Grieboski.

Iran has been criticized for its treatment of Baha’is, Zoroastrians and Christians, who have all suffered under the current regime.

“The Baha’is and the Christians are the ones being used as pawns by the regime in its dance with the West,” said Grieboski. “Iran is a human rights black hole in the middle of the world.”

A source told Compass that when he discussed the apostasy article in the penal code with some of the reformists in Iran’s parliament, they responded by saying they were not aware of the apostasy bill. The source argued that the Iranian government was trying to bury the apostasy article in the 113-page penal code.

“I am not sure there is an adequate means of underscoring how serious this law is in terms of violation of international law and a violation of the fundamental freedom of religion or belief,” said Kit Bigelow of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States.

She urged people to write their representatives in their respective governments.

International pressure is crucial if the apostasy bill is to be countered, agreed a Christian source. He recalled how in 2005 Christian convert Hamid Pourmand was acquitted of apostasy as a direct result of international pressure.

“I don’t know who you are, but apparently the rest of the world does,” the presiding judge had told Pourmand, according to media sources. “You must be an important person, because many people from government have called me, saying to cancel your case.”

The news of parliament approving the bill comes on the heels of two Christians being officially charged with apostasy this summer. Mahmood Matin Azad, 52, and Arash Basirat, 44, have been in prison since May 15 and now await their court date.

Although their future and that of other non-Muslims looks grim, some believe this bill is the act of a government desperately trying to hang onto power.

“I have to say the Iranian regime is tightening severely its control over as many aspects of the lives of Iranian people as they possibly can,” said Grieboski. “And that, I think, is the sign of a weakening regime.”

The original penal code was passed into law in 1991 and last amended in 1996.

Report from Compass Direct News