By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife) -- Two Iranian Christians from Muslim backgrounds may receive the death penalty on charges of apostasy, according to prosecution documents published Tuesday, September 9.
The prosecution requested the death penalty for Mahmoud Mohammad Matin-Azad, 53, and 40-year-old Arash Ahmad-Ali Basirat last week, according to the Bill of Indictment obtained by Farsi Christian News Network (FCNN), which has close contacts with Christians in Iran.
Prosecutors reportedly charged the two believers, who have been detained since May 15, with apostasy at the Public and Revolutionary Court in Shiraz, Iran, saying the judge had "constitutional obligations" to refer to Shariâ€™a, or Muslim, law. They referred to Imam Khomeiniâ€™s book, Tahrir-ul-Vasile, which stipulates the death penalty for apostasy, FCNN reported.
The latest case comes amid mounting international concern about another Iranian Christian, Ramtin Soodmand, who has been held without formal charges since August 21, this year, said Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), a major religious rights group.
Soodmand is the son of the late Hossein Soodmand, who was the last Christian convert from Islam known to have been hanged in Iran following an apostasy verdict in 1990. Authorities make it difficult for family members to visit the detained Christians, CSW said. "Appeals from the families of Mr Matin-Azad, Mr Basirat and Mr Soodmand for information on the menâ€™s welfare and for their release on bail have been continually refused."
Soodmand was detained as part of an ongoing, government-backed, crackdown on believers, Christians said. The week before Ramtin Soodmand turned himself in, another Christian in the area of Mashhad, Iman Rashidi, was reportedly arrested. Elsewhere in the south central city of Kerman, a couple identified as Darioush and Shirin were apparently detained on August 8.
Christians also said that a Christian member of Iran â€™s Kurdish community, Shahin Zanboori, was arrested on August 9 in the southwestern city of Arak by secret police while he was evangelizing. He was allegedly tortured during interrogation and suffered a broken arm and leg, but said he "felt Godâ€™s presence" despite the harsh treatment.
CSW Chief Executive Marvyn Thomas told BosNewsLife in a statement that his organization is concerned for the welfare of the detained Christians "and calls upon the European Union and other key international bodies to urge the Iranian Government for their immediate release and for charges against them to be dropped."
He said, â€œThe right to choose oneâ€™s religion is guaranteed under international law and no individual should be subjected to harassment, let alone face capital punishment on the basis of their religious choices." Western observers say the situation of Christians and those criticizing the government has worsened in recently and at least one human rights activist and writer executed last month.
Yaâ€™qub Mehrnahad, a 28-year-old father of three, was executed August 4, for activities that involved criticizing the government on his website, his supporters say. Authorities claim he was detained in May 2007 on charges of being a member of Jondollah, an armed group linked to violent opposition to the Iranian government. Throughout his mainly secret trial, the rights activist denied these charges.
"God will bring no change in the conditions of any people unless they themselves set about to change their circumstances," he wrote on his Internet blog. "These enlightened and sacred words are providing the motivation for all my activities. I believe that by turning these divine words into action, people can change their own and their societyâ€™s conditions and move from darkness to light, from injustice, inequality, poverty, and tyranny to the ideals and the legitimate demands of humankind."
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has defended his government's policies and has accused the United States and other countries of being "selfish and incompetent" powers that have "obedience to Satan."
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