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In Iran , Covert Christian Converts Live With Secrecy and Fear

A draft Iranian law would mandate the death penalty for apostasy

ICC Note

Many Iranian Muslims are turning to Jesus Christ. Alarmed by the development the Iranian government is considering to enact a law that penalizes conversion to Christianity with death.

By Anuj Chopra

05/08/2008 Iran (USNEWS)-Illyas, 20, precariously straddles two worlds. At home with his family, he’s a devout Christian who wears a silver cross around his neck, devotionally reads the Bible, and, on the Sabbath, hums hymns of praise to Jesus. Easter and Christmas are celebrated with homemade grape wine, even though alcohol is banned in Iran .

Publicly, though, Illyas is a devout Muslim. Before leaving home to attend university classes, he removes the cross. He falsely tells his teachers about reading the Koran regularly since, he says, expressing fealty to Islam is necessary to land a good job in Iran . And he regularly goes to Friday prayers at Tehran University , where, if necessary, he joins in chants of Marg-bar Amrika (Death to America )—although he says that he doesn’t hate America and, in fact, hopes to move there someday.

Illyas and his mother and stepfather—for their safety, their family name cannot be revealed—had been Muslims (as are 98 percent of the nation’s 66 million citizens). That changed a year ago, when they were drawn to a seductively passionate voice on a satellite TV channel imploring Iranians to embrace Christianity. On hearing the voice, Illyas’s mother called the channel’s hotline number. She prayed with the counselor on the phone, she says, making a personal commitment to Jesus as her savior. Later, Illyas and his stepfather did the same, as the counselor from California ‘s Iran for Christ Ministries led them in prayer.

The counselor was able to put Illyas in touch with some local Iranians—also discreet believers—who could provide a copy of the Bible. “We were looking for a faith that offered the reassurance of freedom,” says Illyas, who asked to be interviewed in a public restaurant in Tehran instead of his house.

Leaving Islam for another religion, or apostasy, has long invited reprisals from the Iranian government, forcing the likes of Illyas and his family into absolute secrecy, practicing their new beliefs only in the privacy of their home. In Iran , Christians are prohibited from seeking Muslim converts, although there has been tolerance for those who are born into Christian families.

The government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has introduced legislation before the Iranian Majlis that would mandate the death penalty for apostates from Islam, a sign that it will brook no proselytizing in the country. “Life for so-called apostates in Iran has never been easy, but it could become literally impossible if Iran passes this new draft penal code,” says Joseph Grieboski, the president of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy in Washington . “For anyone who dares question the regime’s religious ideology, there could soon be no room to argue—only death.”

SAT-7 PARS, a Middle Eastern Christian satellite station headquartered in Cyprus , began broadcasting in Farsi to Iran in the fall of 2002, under the name of Iranian Christian Broadcasting. In late 2006, it launched the 24-hour Farsi-language satellite television channel. SAT-7 PARS says it receives hundreds of letters and E-mails every week from Iranian viewers—many of them young—expressing interest in Christianity. David Harder, the communications manager at SAT-7 in Cyprus , says the channel tries to answer all questions, but it is a nonproselytizing entity. “Iranian Christians themselves often have very little access to teaching materials that can help them in their spiritual growth,” says Harder. “Satellite television provides a means through which Iranians, who have often never had the opportunity to enter a church or even to know a Christian, can learn more about this faith.”

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