10/18/2004, 00.00
IRAN

A Protestant minister who converted from Islam risks the death penalty for apostasy

According to the Education Ministry, every day 50 young Iranians secretly convert to Christianity.

Tehran (AsiaNews) – Hamid Pourmand is a Protestant minister of the Assemblies of God Church. He converted from Islam several years ago. Since September he has been held in prison at an undisclosed location and under Iranian law he can be put to death for "apostasy against Islam". He was arrested on September 9 in Karaj, a town 30 km west of the capital Tehran during a police raid against the annual General Council of the Assemblies of God Church.

Reverend Pourmand (see photo) is 47-year-old, married with two children, and a colonel in the Iranian army based in the city of Bandar-i Bushehr (380 km south of Tehran). If brought before a court martial he could face espionage charges and sentenced to death. Although laws instituted after the Islamic revolution prohibit non-Muslims from holding officer rank, he continued to serve as an officer in the Iranian army. "Hamid did not keep his conversion secret," a friend told Compass, "but he is an honest man and people liked and respected him."

Pourmand was arrested along with another 86 Protestant leaders; 76 were released the evening of their arrest whilst another 9 were let go three days later. But Pourmand was the only one who is still in prison. According to eyewitnesses, Iranian police had detailed information about each one of them.

Since his arrest, Pourmand has been able to talk briefly to is wife (an Assyrian Christian) by phone and tell her that he was alright. At the time of his arrest, she and their children were in Tehran visiting relatives. Upon her return home, she found that their home had been searched and family documents and photos taken.

The September raid against the council of the Assemblies of God comes in the wake of several arrests of Christians in northern Iran in May and June.

In July 1994, Mehdi Dibaj, another minister of the Assemblies of God Church who was also a convert from Islam, was killed after spending nine years in prison for refusing to abjure his Christian faith and return to Islam.

Under Iranian law, capital punishment is reserved for apostasy, murder, armed robbery, rape and drug trafficking.   

Some months ago Shiite cleric Hasan Mohammadi from the Ministry of Education said in a speech to Tehran high school students that "on average every day, 50 young Iranians convert secretly to Christian denominations".

There are about 360,000 Christians in Iran out of a population of 65 million. Of these, 25,000 are Catholics. (LF)

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