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Understanding Apostasy

Abdul Rahman is not an isolated case. This is a strategic moment to call for an end to apostasy laws in the Muslim world.

Compiled by Janet Epp Buckingham
For the full story, go to Christianity.Canada

“Shocked” and “appalled” are the way Western leaders responded when they heard that a convert from Islam to Christianity was facing the death penalty in Afghanistan . Certainly, the Abdul Rahman case reminded one of actions of the Taliban. Western countries did not expect that the new, democratically elected government in Afghanistan would also impose the death penalty for “apostasy,” or conversion from Islam.

Yet the Afghanistan constitution, while it protects religious freedom, also makes Islam the official state religion, and bases the country’s laws on Islamic law. And while there is considerable debate among Muslim scholars over whether the core of Islamic legal tradition supports religious tolerance or punishment for apostasy, the latter seems to characterize the leadership of many Islamic countries.

It is not only Afghanistan that has sentenced converts to death. Paul Marshall, a leading expert on these issues, writes in the Weekly Standard, that Saudi Arabia , Iran , Sudan , Mauritania and the Comoros Islands also prescribe the death penalty for converts. The last case that garnered international attention was from Yemen , where a man who was already a refugee from Somalia , was to be executed for converting to Christianity. Thankfully, in that case, New Zealand took Mohammed Omer Haji and his family as refugees.

While a few Islamic states officially endorse capital punishment for apostasy, many others subject converts to other punishment, including imprisonment. Even those that officially embrace religious tolerance—such as Pakistan —tend to turn a blind eye to vigilante justice and widespread persecution of converts including rejection by their families and communities, harassment, violence, and even murder.

But if I visited, or even relocated, to any of these countries, my religion would be respected. Well, sort of. In Saudi Arabia, it is illegal to have any kind of religious observance other than Muslim. So, I couldn’t go to church or pray with my family, even. I think saying a collective grace at supper would be out. But these countries believe that they have respected my religious freedom if they do not kill me for my beliefs. And I can even convert to Islam.

But their conception of religious freedom certainly does not include freedom to convert from Islam. As far as Islamic governments are concerned, Islam is the one true religion, and it would be contrary to their beliefs to accept that someone would have the freedom to convert, without consequence, away from the truth.

It is this approach that made negotiation of an international treaty on religious freedom impossible. What we have now is a non-binding Declaration. Even though the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other international human rights treaties, make it clear that the right to convert is a fundamental human right, Islamic countries on the whole will not accept it. Say what you will about the United Nations, it is the one place where nations take on commitments to observe human rights and the rest of us can call them to account if they fail.

Now that apostasy laws are front page news in Canada and elsewhere, it is time the Christians of the world stand up for those who pay the ultimate price for converting to Christianity. For the most part, the former Muslims became Christians because one of us, a Christian, shared the faith. How can we then stand by while they are executed?

While we need to press for apostasy laws to be repealed across the Muslim world, we can start with Afghanistan . The world is watching. It is also a strategic moment for Canada —our troops are taking a leading role there for the next several months. We will have more leverage now than at any other time. It is for that reason that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s phone call to President Karzai, of Afghanistan , was so important.

So, we must call on our government to use its leverage to call for religious freedom for all Afghanis. Even before the Rahman case was concluded, two more Christian converts were arrested in Afghanistan.

And let us not neglect prayer. Christians are threatened in many Muslim countries and when these issues hit the news there, they are under great pressure. And pray for those converts who are in jail and in hiding. Let us remember those who are persecuted as if we were “in chains” with them (see Colosians 4:8).

Janet Epp Buckingham is director of Law and Public Policy and general legal counsel for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada in Ottawa .