In Iran, Covert Christian Converts Live With Secrecy and Fear

A draft Iranian law would mandate the death penalty for apostasy
By Anuj Chopra
Posted May 8, 2008

TEHRAN, IRAN—Illyas, 20, precariously straddles two worlds. At home with his family, he’s a devout Christian who wears a silver cross around his neck, devotionally reads the Bible, and, on the Sabbath, hums hymns of praise to Jesus. Easter and Christmas are celebrated with homemade grape wine, even though alcohol is banned in Iran.

Publicly, though, Illyas is a devout Muslim. Before leaving home to attend university classes, he removes the cross. He falsely tells his teachers about reading the Koran regularly since, he says, expressing fealty to Islam is necessary to land a good job in Iran. And he regularly goes to Friday prayers at Tehran University, where, if necessary, he joins in chants of Marg-bar Amrika (Death to America)—although he says that he doesn’t hate America and, in fact, hopes to move there someday.

Illyas and his mother and stepfather—for their safety, their family name cannot be revealed—had been Muslims (as are 98 percent of the nation’s 66 million citizens). That changed a year ago, when they were drawn to a seductively passionate voice on a satellite TV channel imploring Iranians to embrace Christianity. On hearing the voice, Illyas’s mother called the channel’s hotline number. She prayed with the counselor on the phone, she says, making a personal commitment to Jesus as her savior. Later, Illyas and his stepfather did the same, as the counselor from California’s Iran for Christ Ministries led them in prayer.

The counselor was able to put Illyas in touch with some local Iranians—also discreet believers—who could provide a copy of the Bible. “We were looking for a faith that offered the reassurance of freedom,” says Illyas, who asked to be interviewed in a public restaurant in Tehran instead of his house.

Islam is the state religion of Iran, governing most aspects of life since the 1979 Islamic revolution. But, exasperated with the obsessive atmosphere of Islamic purity in Iran since the revolution and the subsequent curbing of social freedoms, Illyas says, his family felt compelled to look for other spiritual answers, even at considerable risk.

Leaving Islam for another religion, or apostasy, has long invited reprisals from the Iranian government, forcing the likes of Illyas and his family into absolute secrecy, practicing their new beliefs only in the privacy of their home. In Iran, Christians are prohibited from seeking Muslim converts, although there has been tolerance for those who are born into Christian families.

The government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has introduced legislation before the Iranian Majlis that would mandate the death penalty for apostates from Islam, a sign that it will brook no proselytizing in the country. “Life for so-called apostates in Iran has never been easy, but it could become literally impossible if Iran passes this new draft penal code,” says Joseph Grieboski, the president of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy in Washington. “For anyone who dares question the regime’s religious ideology, there could soon be no room to argue—only death.”

Minorities. Grieboski points out that the text of the draft penal code uses the word hadd (prescribed punishment), which explicitly sets death as a fixed, irrevocable punishment. He worries that it could be applied to religious and ethnic minorities like Christians, Bahais, Jews, and Azeris by treating them as apostates.

Articles 225 to 227 of the draft penal code define two kinds of apostates: fetri, or an innate apostate—who has at least one Muslim parent, identifies as a Muslim after puberty, and later renounces Islam; and melli, or parental apostate—who is a non-Muslim at birth but later embraces Islam, only to renounce it again. The draft code says outright that punishment for an innate apostate is death. However, parental apostates have three days after their sentencing to recant their beliefs. If they don’t, they will be executed according to their sentence. It isn’t clear when this bill will be passed, though Grieboski says, “International pressure and attention—in large part due to our work—has significantly slowed the parliament’s progress.”

In the past, apostasy could draw a range of punishments, from imprisonment to death, under legal practices that were more ambiguous than the draft statutes. In one instance that drew international attention, Mehdi Dibaj, an Iranian convert, was held in prison for his Christian beliefs for 10 years starting in 1984. He received the death sentence at the end of 1993. But he was released from prison in January 1994 after an international publicity campaign by Haik Hovsepian Mehr, a prominent Christian pastor in Iran. A few days after Dibaj’s release, Hovsepian Mehr was abducted in Tehran, and his body, with 26 stab wounds, was found secretly buried in a Muslim graveyard. Six months later, Dibaj, freed but still under a pending death sentence, was abducted and murdered.

Considering the perils, Muslim Iranians turn to satellite television (though officially prohibited), radio, and the Internet to talk about faiths other than Islam. Some names include the Iranian Christian Television Channel, run by a registered charity based in the United Kingdom; Radio Mojdeh; and Iranian Christian Radio.

SAT-7 PARS, a Middle Eastern Christian satellite station headquartered in Cyprus, began broadcasting in Farsi to Iran in the fall of 2002, under the name of Iranian Christian Broadcasting. In late 2006, it launched the 24-hour Farsi-language satellite television channel. SAT-7 PARS says it receives hundreds of letters and E-mails every week from Iranian viewers—many of them young—expressing interest in Christianity. David Harder, the communications manager at SAT-7 in Cyprus, says the channel tries to answer all questions, but it is a nonproselytizing entity. “Iranian Christians themselves often have very little access to teaching materials that can help them in their spiritual growth,” says Harder. “Satellite television provides a means through which Iranians, who have often never had the opportunity to enter a church or even to know a Christian, can learn more about this faith.”

Despite the Koran’s injunction that “there is no compulsion in religion,” issues of religious freedom have persisted since the Islamic revolution of 1979, and that is driving the young away from Islam, says Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a reformist cleric and former vice president of Iran. “If you force religion down people’s throats, it makes them less religious, not more.” Another analyst based in Tehran agrees but senses a western conspiracy in proselytizing through mass media. He blames satellite television channels for emotionally manipulating Iranian viewers into changing their religion. “Iranians are looking for a balm, and proselytizers are taking advantage of that,” he says. “There’s a vicious western plot to foment a wider cultural East-West war and demonize Islam in the process.”

Demonizing Christianity. Ironically, these days, a recent Iranian film, Jesus, the Spirit of God, is being accused of demonizing Christianity. It’s a new film on Jesus told from an Islamic perspective. Jesus, regarded as only a prophet, did not die on the cross and was not resurrected. The disciple Judas Iscariot is crucified in his place, according to the film. This premise is based on the teachings of the Koran and the Gospel of Barnabas, a book not included in the Christian Bible and in which the prophet Muhammad appears.

The $5 million film, funded by Iranian state broadcasting, is intended to promote a dialogue between Muslims and Christians, according to director Nader Talebzadeh. It received a tepid reception in theaters across Iran and will now be recycled as a 20-episode series on state-run national television this year.

Mona, a 24-year-old Assyrian Christian residing in more affluent northern Tehran, saw the film and said its “jaundiced” interpretation made her cringe. She’s not very religious, she says, though she acknowledges there is enough freedom to practice her faith because she was born into a Christian family. But she remains disillusioned with the fact that Islam pervades almost every aspect of normal life in Iran.

She says she was recently rejected for a job as a flight attendant with Air Iran, the state-run airline, because she hadn’t ever read the Koran. “Religion without the freedom to reject it is not a true religion,” she says in her living room, her head bereft of a scarf. “It makes life very claustrophobic.”

(This story was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in Washington.)

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Saudi Arabia wishes you all a happy Passover!

Which is interesting considering Judaism (and every other non-Islamic religion) is banned there.

Also worth noting, the official government policy openly proclaimed that Jews were forbidden from entering the country.

I am very interested in a statement made by Dr Alyami of The Center for Democracy and Human Rights (in Saudi Arabia. He stated“the struggle against slavery may have started thousands of years ago [but] it never stops and must not until we are all free from fear, oppression, hate and looming ideological threats.” Such a statement coming from Saudi Arabia is indeed worthy of special mention. Saudi Arabia is renowned worldwide for its treatment of women – women cannot drive, they cannot leave the home unaccompanied by a man, they have to seek permission to travel out of the country by a man, they have to abide by strict dress codes etc. In short, Saudi Arabia is not the most liberal and free country. Maybe coming from the West I have simply taken the statement on pure face value. In applying freedom of oppression my background gives such a term a relative meaning.

Could it be that the inequality between men and women in their culture is so institutionally oppressed that they do not recognise it as such?

Distinct from the treatment of women,  Saudi Arabia is renowned for its religious apartheid. Testifying before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus on June 4, 2002, in a briefing entitled “Human Rights in Saudi Arabia: The Role of Women”, Ali Al-Ahmed, Director of the Saudi Institute, stated:

Saudi Arabia is a glaring example of religious apartheid. The religious institutions from government clerics to judges, to religious curricula, and all religious instructions in media are restricted to the Wahhabi understanding of Islam, adhered to by less than 40% of the population. The Saudi government communized Islam, through its monopoly of both religious thoughts and practice. Wahhabi Islam is imposed and enforced on all Saudis regardless of their religious orientations. The Wahhabi sect does not tolerate other religious or ideological beliefs, Muslim or not. Religious symbols by Muslims, Christians, Jewish and other believers are all banned. The Saudi embassy in Washington is a living example of religious apartheid. In its 50 years, there has not been a single non-Sunni Muslim diplomat in the embassy. The branch of Imam Mohamed Bin Saud University in Fairfax, Virginia instructs its students that Shia Islam is a Jewish conspiracy.

According to Freedom House’s 2006 report,

The Saudi Ministry of Education Islamic studies textbooks … continue to promote an ideology of hatred that teaches bigotry and deplores tolerance. These texts continue to instruct students to hold a dualistic worldview in which there exist two incompatible realms – one consisting of true believers in Islam … and the other the unbelievers – realms that can never coexist in peace. Students are being taught that Christians and Jews and other Muslims are “enemies” of the true believer… The textbooks condemn and denigrate Shiite and Sufi Muslims’ beliefs and practices as heretical and call them “polytheists”, command Muslims to hate Christians, Jews, polytheists and other “unbelievers”, and teach that the Crusades never ended, and identify Western social service providers, media outlets, centers for academic studies, and campaigns for women’s rights as part of the modern phase of the Crusades.

For a country to make such grand statements with such a horrible track record is bewildering. I hope there is sincerity in their words which they begin to work towards.

As a Saudi Woman

One recurring theme that troubles me to this day is that of the oppression of women in society. This subjugation of women transcends social status and cannot be blamed on class struggle per se. Although a Marxist may claim that the subjection resulted in the movement to a class society and the development of human labour capital, I believe this to be a fairly limited view.

Although, arguably, this may account for the development of the oppression of women as the inferior or second sex in the West, does it account for the oppression seen in religious ruled countries such as Saudi Arabia?

Before this is continued I recommend you read this article to summarily create the context of the oppression of women in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi women appeal for legal freedoms

By Daniel Howden and Rachel Shields
Monday, 21 April 2008

In Riyadh, the college day begins for female students behind a locked door that will remain that way until male guardians come to collect them. Later, in a female-run business, everyone must vacate the premises so a delivery man can drop off a package. In Jeddah, a 40-year-old divorced woman cannot board a plane without the written permission of her 23-year-old son. Elsewhere, a female doctor cannot leave the house at all as her male driver fails to turn up for work. These scenes make up the daily reality for half of the Saudi Kingdom, the only country where women legally belong to men.

After more than a decade of lobbying, the New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) has finally been granted access to Saudi Arabia, where it has uncovered a disturbing picture of women forced to live as children, denied basic rights and confined to a suffocating dependency on men.

Wajeha al-Huwaider, a critic of Saudi’s guardian laws that force women to seek male permission for almost all aspects of their lives, is one of a growing number demanding change. “Sometimes I feel like I can’t do anything; I am utterly reliant on other people, completely dependent. If you are dependent on another person, you’ve got nothing. That is how the men like it. They don’t want us to be equals.”

The House of Saud, in alliance with an extremist religious establishment which enforces the most restrictive interpretation of sharia, Islamic law, has created a legal system that treats women as minors unable to exercise authority over even trivial daily matters.

The most egregious consequences of this repressive regime occasionally filter out from the Gulf Kingdom: the notorious case in Qatif of the girl who was jailed after being gang raped on a charge of consorting with a male non-relative; the schoolgirls believed to have burnt to death in Mecca as religious police would not let them leave the fiery premises without headscarves; or the happily married Fatima Azzaz from Mansour, forced to divorce her husband at the whim of her half-brothers.

Beyond these high-profile cases is a demoralising and sometimes ridiculous reality in which women cannot open bank accounts for their children, take them to the dentist or even on a field trip without the written permission of the father.

Petty humiliations are endemic. Two women who spoke to HRW said, in a report released today, that judges had refused them the right to speak in court as their voices were “shameful” – only their guardians were allowed to speak on their behalf. Saudi courts require a mu’arif (a male to identify her under the full face veil) before a woman can even attempt to testify.

“The Saudi government sacrifices human rights to maintain male control over women,” said Farida Deif from HRW. “Saudi women won’t make progress until the government ends the abuses that stem from these misguided policies.”

The oil-rich kingdom lies at the bottom of the UN rankings on female empowerment and women make up only 4 per cent of the workforce.

The frustrations of Dr M are typical of those faced even by educated women:

“When I take my daughter to the doctor’s, they ask me where my husband is, and refuse to do anything until he comes to authorise it. Even if it is something small like an ear infection.”

Another woman who, despite the legal barriers, owns her own business, describes the farcical difficulties she faces: “Only women can enter my premises. If a delivery man needs to drop something off we have to exit the premises first. It is ridiculous.”

Trumpeted reforms from King Abdullah have had little impact on women’s lives. Too often, sex segregation results in an “apartheid” system in which facilities for women are either grossly inferior or non-existent. Women were denied the right to vote in the kingdom’s first municipal elections because there were no separate voting booths for them.

Even progress that is achieved often serves to underline the fundamental problem – that of legal guardianship of men over women. In the words of one Saudi woman: “We still need to get a male guardian – husband, father or brother – to sign a form saying where we are allowed to work and when. It is like we are their property.”

To be continuted…

Source: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/saudi-women-appeal-for-legal-freedoms-812657.html