02/08/2005, 00.00
IRAN
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No more court martial for Protestant clergyman who converted from Islam

Military espionage charges are dropped but apostasy and proselytising still hang over his head. Pastor is still liable for the death penalty.

Tehran (AsiaNews/Compass) – Hamid Pourmand, an Iranian Protestant clergyman, is no longer accused of espionage and will soon be able to leave the military prison where he has spent the last three months. However, he will now have to face charges of apostasy and proselytising. His trial will thus be exclusively based on the intolerance Iran's religious theocracy has towards the country's religious minorities.

Arrested five months ago, rev Pourmand went on trial last week before a military court in Tehran, charged with deceiving the Iranian armed forces about his religion.

Born a Muslim, Rev Pourmand converted to Christianity 25 years ago.

An army man, the lay pastor rose through the ranks and is now a colonel in the Iranian army stationed in Bandar-i Bushehr.

He was arrested on September 9, 2004, in Karaj (30 km west of Tehran), when the police raided a meeting of the Assemblies of God.

The decision to move him to a military prison in the capital gave his fate an even more ominous twist. The court martial could add military espionage to his list of charges. In Iran, military espionage carries the death penalty.

In his court martial last week, judges decided that although he was not guilty of espionage he would still have to return to Bandar-i Bushehr (south of Tehran) to face apostasy and proselytising charges.

During the hearing, court officials declared that for many years Pourmand had belonged to an 'underground' church through which "many Muslims" had deserted Islam and become Christians.

"Either he will be forced to return to Islam," one Iranian Christian source noted, "or he will face a very big problem now."

After he joined the army Pourmand became an officer even though Iranian law passed shortly after the Islamic revolution prohibits non-Muslims from serving as military officers.

Pourmand reportedly declared in court last week that he had documented proof, in the form of a letter, that the army knew he had become a Christian before he was ever given officer rank.

According to his family and Christian acquaintances, Pourmand had never concealed his religious conversion.

The Iranian government considers "foreign religions" a threat to national security.

Since 1990, several ex-Muslims who converted to Christianity have been either assassinated or executed by court order, under the guise of accusations of spying for foreign countries.

Under Iranian law, apostasy is listed along with murder, armed robbery, rape and serious drug trafficking as a capital offence.

Back in November 2004, the European Union sent an official note to the Iranian government calling for the release of Rev Pourmand and for the respect of religious freedom in the country. (MA)

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