WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is warning that Iran is set to finalize a law that would make it the first nation to impose the death penalty for people convicted of so-called apostasy.
“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,” Felice D. Gaer, USCIRF’s chairperson, said in a Sept. 17 news release.
“Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has disparaged foreign criticism of the penal code as ‘global arrogance,’ but no objective observer can present the recent developments in Iranian law as anything but regression.”
Under current Iranian law, leaving Islam is considered a capital offense, but punishment is left up to the judge. Earlier this year, the Iranian Parliament proposed a draft penal code that mandates the death penalty for so-called apostasy.
The draft bill seeks to add several crimes to the list of offenses that would lead to execution, including “establishing weblogs and sites promoting corruption, prostitution and apostasy,” according to the U.K.-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
Lawmakers approved the draft bill Sept. 9 by 196 votes for, seven against and two abstentions, CSW, a human rights group, said. The approved bill was sent back to the Legislative Commission to debate proposed amendments before it is brought before parliament for a further vote.
USCIRF noted that the proposed legislation coincides with apostasy charges brought against two men who were among about a dozen Christian converts detained in Shiraz in May. The others were released, but in August the two men were officially charged based on their confessions during interrogation, according to a report by Compass Direct News.
“With the apostasy bill to be debated in parliament, some Iranian Christians fear that authorities are seeking to make an example of the two prisoners or give the prospective law a ‘test run,'” Compass said.
USCIRF said Iran has violated religious freedom standards several times this year, including the brutal execution of at least six minors as well as detaining four women who allegedly were “spreading propaganda” against Iran’s Islamic legal system by advocating for its reform.
“Reformists and journalists are regularly tried under current press laws and the penal code on charges of ‘insulting Islam,’ criticizing the Islamic Republic and publishing materials that deviate from Islamic standards,” the commission said.
“Because of the Iranian government’s egregious and systematic violations of religious freedom and other human rights, including prolonged detention, torture and executions based primarily or entirely upon the religion of the accused, the commission continues to recommend that Iran be included on the State Department’s list of ‘countries of particular concern,'” USCIRF said.
The commission called on the U.S. government and its allies to pressure Tehran to end punishments for so-called apostasy, release religious prisoners and end its practice of systematically marginalizing religious minorities.
“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 of USCIRF said. “The Iranian government should respect the international commitments it has taken on in the field of religious freedom and other human rights, including the freedom to have or adopt a religion as set out in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a party.”
News of the harsher penal code comes amid Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s continued rhetoric regarding his nation’s nuclear program. According to Reuters, Ahmadinejad said Sept. 18 that threats of more sanctions from the international community would not deter Iran from pursuing its “peaceful nuclear plans.”
“Whatever they do, Iran will continue its activities. Sanctions are not important. The era of threats has ended,” Ahmadinejad said at a news conference.
Iran contends its nuclear work is for generating electricity, but Western nations fear the activity is aimed at building weapons including atomic bombs. This week, the United States, Britain and France vowed to seek harsher sanctions on Tehran following the regime’s defiance of United Nations’ calls for full disclosure and a suspension of uranium enrichment, Reuters said.
One component of the nuclear issue is the threat of Israeli strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Ahmadinejad was quoted by Iran’s state Press TV Thursday downplaying the possibility that the Israeli Air Force would strike against Iran.
“Israel is in a weak position to launch attacks against any other country,” Iran’s president said, according to The Jerusalem Post.
Compiled by Baptist Press staff writer Erin Roach.