Iranian Pastors Deny Allegation of Faith Renunciation

Two Iranian pastors recently acquitted of apostasy charges countered the court's recently exposed claim that they had renounced their Christian faith.

Court documents obtained by the human rights group Amnesty International claim that the court released the two Christian men because they had confessed to never converting to Christianity.

But Mahmoud Matin Azad, 52, and Arash Basirat, 44, said not only had they never denied their Christian faith in court, but the question never even came up during the hearing.

"The first question that they asked me was, 'What are you doing?' I said, 'I am a pastor pastoring a house church in Iran," Azad said to Compass Direct News. "All my [court] papers are about Christianity – about my activity, about our church and everything."

The two men and rights group offered several reasons for the judge's decision to release the Christian converts, including political pressure from above to avoid negative international attention on its treatment of a religious minority.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is facing re-election soon and his approval ratings are nearly single digits. He would face backlash from the international community and citizens for charging the pastors with apostasy when a law that would punish apostasy with the death penalty is currently being reviewed in the parliament.

"What he does not need is bad press and bad political positioning," said Joseph Grieboski, founder of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, to Compass. "I would be shocked if [the acquittal] were not somehow involved in the presidential campaign."

Voice of the Martyrs, a group working with the persecuted church, also thinks international pressure had to do with the men's release.

"This case shows a situation where international pressure is being brought to bear, and it is making a difference," Todd Nettleton of Voice of the Martyrs said. "They did not want an international outcry; they did not want a 'black eye' on their human rights record, and so I suspect that this judge was told, 'Make this case go away,' and he did."

Azad said that the court did not give him or Basirat a reason for freeing them.

They now fear that their release is just part of a ploy to cause further harm to them.

In past cases with Christian converts, the court had released converts just so that Muslim extremists could kill them outside the law.

"Even in Iran no judge wants to be the one to hand down the death penalty for apostasy," Grieboski 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."

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