The Iranian Parliament voted in favor of a bill Tuesday that would punish apostasy with the death penalty, a human rights group reported.
Lawmakers approved the bill with 196 votes in favor, seven against, and two abstentions, according to U.K.-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide. The draft bill seeks to add several crimes to the list of acts that would result in execution, including "establishing weblogs and sites promoting corruption, prostitution, and apostasy."
CSW advocacy director Alexa Papadouris commented, "It is deeply worrying to hear that just days after Matin-Azad and Basirat have been charged with apostasy at a court in Shiraz, the Iranian Parliament is debating a bill that could codify the death penalty for someone choosing their own religion."
Mahmoud Mohammad Matin-Azad, 53, and Arash Ahmad-Ali Basirat, 40, are Christian-converts from Islam who were charged with apostasy last week at the Public and Revolutionary Court in Shiraz, Iran. They are currently awaiting the court's verdict and have been detained since May 15.
In August, there were five known arrests of Iranian Christians in three cities by authorities, according to the persecution watchdog agency Compass Direct News. Among those arrested was Ramtin Soodmand, who is the son of the last Christian convert to be executed for leaving Islam, on Aug. 21.
Soodmand's father, Hossein Soodmand, was an Assemblies of God pastor who was executed by the state in 1990 under the false charge of working as an American spy. Since Soodmand's death, six other Protestant pastors have been assassinated by unknown assailants.
The younger Soodmand has been held in Tehran since he voluntarily turned himself in after repeated calls from the Ministry of Information. According to Compass sources, he was only allowed one phone call to his blind mother on Aug. 23, and allowed a "visit" by his wife and two young children where authorities only permitted them to have a two-minute conversation by phone. They never saw each other and his condition remains unknown.
Iran is ranked third in Open Doors' World Watch List for countries with the worst persecution of Christians. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom also lists Iran as a "Country of Particular Concern," a label given to countries with the worst religious freedom abuses.
Reportedly, Iran had removed news of the bill's approval from its Parliament website within hours of publishing it on Tuesday, according to CSW. But reports of the bill's process in parliament was published by other official Iranian news agencies, including IRINN (Islamic Republic of Iran News Network) and morning papers inside Iran, such as Resalat.
"We call upon the British Government and the European Union to officially respond to this new development and urge the Iranian Government to reject the bill and guarantee the immediate release of all who are detained on the basis of their religious beliefs alone," Papadouris of Christian Solidarity plead.
The approved bill will be sent back to the Legislative Commission to debate proposed amendments before it is brought back to the Parliament for another vote.