Christian converts cleared of any crime

Christian converts cleared of any crime

Left to right: Mohammad Ali (Davoud) Torabi, Mohammad Kayidgap, Esmaeil Narimanpour, and Alireza Varak-Shah, four of eight Christian converts cleared of any criminal offence.

Eight Christian converts have been cleared of any crime, with the presiding prosecutor stating that their change of religion was not a punishable offence according to the laws of Iran.

The ruling by the public prosecutor of the Civil and Revolutionary Court of Dezful comes just weeks after Iran’s Supreme Court ruled that nine other Christian converts serving five-year prison sentences should not have been convicted of “acting against national security”.

The Dezful ruling, dated 30 November, states that the eight Christians – Esmaeil Narimanpour, Alireza Varak-Shah, Mohammad Ali (Davoud) Torabi, Mohammad Kayidgap, Hojjat Lotfi Khalaf, Alireza Roshanaei Zadeh, Masoud Nabi, and Mohsen Saadati Zadeh – “merely converted to a different religion” and “didn’t carry out any propaganda against other groups”.

The prosecutor added that “apostasy” from Islam is something that can be punished under Islamic law (Sharia), “and in the hereafter”, but has “not been criminalised in the laws of Iran”, and therefore the men could not be charged.

Their lawyer, Iman Soleimani, tweeted a copy of the ruling, saying it offered a “glimmer of hope” amidst the “despair of continued arrests of activists and dissidents … imprisonment, torture, executions, inflation, trade union and workers’ protests”.

‘Apostasy’ in the Islamic Republic

The issue of “apostasy” has been debated since the founding of the Islamic Republic, with different ayatollahs pronouncing different rulings on the matter.

The Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, made clear that in his view the “crime” is punishable by death.

However, while several Christian converts have been sentenced to death for their “apostasy”, only once has this been carried out following a court’s decision – in the case of Rev Hossein Soodmand, who was hanged in 1990.

Fellow convert Rev Mehdi Dibaj was also sentenced to death in December 1993, after nine years in prison, but freed a month after the verdict following an international outcry, only to be found stabbed to death in June 1994. 

More recently, another Christian convert, Yousef Nadarkhani, was sentenced to death for his “apostasy” in 2010, but again this sentence was overturned after an international outcry. 

Yousef is now back in prison, this time serving a six-year prison sentence (reduced from 10 years) for “acting against national security”.

Such “security” charges have become much more common over the past decade, replacing charges of a more obvious religious nature, and therefore affording the Iranian authorities room to be able to make claims such as that “no-one is imprisoned in Iran because of their beliefs”.

However, the lack of an official agreed position on “apostasy” continues to lead to inconsistent rulings in the courts, such as in this latest case in Dezful, where an individual prosecutor has chosen leniency.

The fear is that, until an official line is drawn, the next judge may take a different view.