Iran's Apostasy Death Penalty Raises U.S. Concern

An Iranian bill that would punish apostasy with death has drawn the condemnation of a U.S. religious freedom body, which calls on the United States and other governments to quickly speak out against the proposed law ahead of its soon expected final approval by Iran's parliament.

"The new penal code provision prescribing the death penalty for the so-called crime of apostasy and other crimes is a huge step backwards for human rights," criticized U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom chair Felice D. Gaer.

In her statement, she refuted Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's charge that foreign criticism of the penal code is "global arrogance," and denounced religious freedom in Iran as a "chimera."

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Under the proposed law – which is expected to be approved by the parliament – many religious minority communities could be subjected to death sentences, the religious freedom expert emphasized.

Christians, Baha'is, and even some Muslims would be vulnerable to arbitrary arrest and imprisonment.

If the law passes, two Christians from Muslim backgrounds who are currently in prison for apostasy - Mahmoud Mohammad Matin-Azad and Arash Ahmad-Ali Basirat - could be given the death sentence.

"Iran's human rights record is abysmal, and the soon-to-be codified call for the death penalty for apostasy underlines the danger that the intolerance of the Iranian regime poses to its own people," Gaer said.

The Iranian government's recent move could result in the country's first legal penal code that calls for death for the crime of apostasy, or leaving one's faith.

Currently, the bill is in the Legislative Commission for debate on proposed amendments and then will return to the Parliament for another vote.

USCIRF has recommended that Iran be included on the State Department's list of "countries of particular concern" – the blacklist for religious freedom violators – citing the government's "egregious and systematic violations of religious freedom and other human rights."

It has also called for the release of all religious prisoners and an end to the government's systematic discrimination of religious minorities.

Next week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is scheduled to visit New York for a United Nations meeting. A group of religious leaders – including from the Mennonite Central Committee, World Council of Churches, the Quaker group American Friends Service Committee, and the Episcopal Church - has invited the controversial leader to dinner.

Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, criticized the planned dinner with the Ahmadinejad.

"In the past, these church leaders have said nothing about the religious freedom of Christians and other religious minorities in Iran," Tooley commented. "Indeed, there has been no professed concern about human rights in Iran.

"IRD challenges the leaders to speak up for religious freedom of Iranian Christians and for all people in Iran, since the Iranians themselves are not free to speak plainly."

Members of these church groups had visited Iran in February of 2007, and held a similar event with the National Council of Churches in September 2007 also in New York.

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