Thursday, 31 January 2013

Iran's law attacks religious freedom

International law and freedom of religion are easily disregarded in Iran when it comes to ex-Muslims.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of Iran
by Samuel M Taylor

On January 27, the Iranian-born American pastor Saeed Abedini was sentenced to eight years in Tehran’s Evin prison, where he has spent the last four months awaiting trial on charges of undermining the Iranian regime through proselytising the Christian faith. Whether the pastor’s activities in Iran constituted any real threat to the Islamic Republic remains to be seen, as the trial was conducted quickly, with little transparency and even less evidence. 

After a petition of over 250,000 signatores prompted the U.S. Senate to issue a call for Abedini’s release, the White House and State Department alike issued a series of statements condemning Iran’s violation of the ‘universal right of freedom of religion’ - a human right established in the UN charter, among other international declarations to which Iran has agreed. Yet, in the court of the Revolutionary Guard, such a ‘universal’ right has little meaning, if any. The Iranian constitution requires all laws and regulations to be ‘consistent’ with the official Twelver Shi’ite interpretation of Islamic Sharia Law. Although religious minorities (including Zoarastrians, Christians, Jews, and Baha’is) are guaranteed the freedom to practice their respective faiths, apostates fall under an entirely different category. 

Abedini converted to Christianity in Iran when he was 19 years old, moved to the United States five years later and became a U.S. citizen in 2010. Because he converted from Islam to Christianity, he is considered an apostate under Sharia law and is therefore not privy to the same religious freedoms as an Iranian citizen who is born a Christian. Moreover, because Abedini is charged with instigating a subversive underground Christian movement within Iran, he is considered a threat to the legitimacy of the regime. The domestic security interests of the state, in this case and in previous cases wherein proselytisers have been imprisoned and even executed, take precedence over such international agreements as The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1990 Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam - two documents that need to be closely examined in order to determine the legitimacy of Iranian legal action against converts such as Abedini, Yousef Nadarkhani, and others who have been accused of inciting opposition to the government. 

Article 18 of the UN General Assembly’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."

The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam invokes a similar universal right to religion in Article 18(a): "Everyone shall have the right to live in security for himself, his religion, his dependents, his honour and his property."

Yet, in Article 23(c) the use of ‘information’ - in this case religious proselytising - is clearly subject to regulation: "Information is a vital necessity to society. It may not be exploited or misused in such a way as may violate sanctities and the dignity of Prophets, undermine moral and ethical Values or disintegrate, corrupt or harm society or weaken its faith."

The Cairo Declaration’s final articles, 24 and 25, clearly state that “all the rights and freedoms stipulated in this document are subject to the Islamic Shari’ah.” There is no indication of exemptions, however, for those who convert from Islam - an issue which is specifically limited to the jurisdiction of Shari’a.

In addition to the ‘universal’ rights established within various international legal frameworks, Iran’s own constitution specifically delimits certain rights of practice to religious minorities that share Islam’s monotheistic and Abrahamic character in Article 13: "Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian Iranians are the only recognised religious minorities, who, within the limits of the law, are free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies, and to act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education."

Abedini’s ‘crimes’ were identified in his initial detention period in 2009 during which he signed a contract agreeing to cease teaching Christianity in various homes in Iran. Although the pastor’s family members and attorneys claim his recent activities have been humanitarian rather than proselytizing in nature, the Iranian government has deemed him to be in violation of his previous agreement. Because pastor Abedini is an Iranian-born citizen, his case inevitably involves contradictory articles of international law that allow the Iranian regime to utilize provisions of both their constitution and the Cairo Declaration to justify his arrest and detainment. His UN-guaranteed ‘universal’ human right to “manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance,” however, has been roundly violated in addition his right to “act according to [his] own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education,” as put forth in the Iranian constitution. 

This type of action on the part of Iranian government is not without precedent, as another Christian pastor, Yousef Nadarkhani was sentenced to death in 2010. While he was initially held for apostasy, the government tried to bring allegations of violent crimes against Nadarkhani but eventually dropped the case and threatened to uphold his death sentence unless he renounced his Christian faith. After serving his prison time, he was released in September of 2012 before being re-imprisoned and re-released in early January 2013. 

Similarly, two Iranian women who converted to Christianity were banished to the notorious Evin prison for committing apostasy and spreading ‘propaganda’ against the regime before being released in 2009. A US State Department report from 2010 claims "at least two death sentences for apostasy or evangelism were issued under judicial interpretations of Sharia" during that year. Christians, however, are not the exclusive target of such discrimination - Sufi Muslims, Sunni Muslims and members of the Baha’i faith (a group composed of over 300,000 Iranian citizens) have been targets of surveillance, detainment and punishment based on activities related to their faith that are viewed as potentially subversive to the regime. 

Abedini may merely be the latest in a long series of citizens who have earned the ire of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard not for simply being Christians but, rather, for abandoning the faith into which they were born. Although Abedini’s family has posted the appropriate bail (more than £250,000), the Iranian regime has so far been inconsistent regarding its intent to release the American pastor. Regardless of how many times the U.S. Secretary of State decides to invoke the ‘universal freedom of religion’ guaranteed to Abedini and, by extension, all human beings, the appeal seems to continually fall on collective deaf ears within the court of the Revolutionary Guard. @Tex_Taylor
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