The Harshest Punishment in Response to the Greatest Good
Facing execution for “apostasy,” Abdul Rahman recently found himself on the world stage. Operating under Islamic shari’a law, Afghan authorities were seemingly prepared to exact capital punishment for Rahman’s conversion to Christianity. International furor forced these officials to relent and artfully engineer Rahman’s release.1 Particularly galling was the spectacle of American, Christian soldiers laying down their lives to liberate Afghanistan from the Taliban, only to see the replacement, “moderate” government dismiss religious freedom in its own way.
Rahman’s case is not a lonely one. In 1989, Iran hanged Assemblies of God pastor and evangelist Hossein Soodman for his faith. In 1994, Soodman’s countryman, Mehdi Dibaj, faced a similar fate, but was acquitted on technicalities. Still, Dibaj spent nearly nine years in prison, two of those in solitary confinement. He was finally released in 1995, after enduring several mock executions, where he thought the next moment would be his last.2
Such treatment is not limited to the wilds of war-torn Afghanistan and “revolutionary” Iran. Domesticated, affluent Saudi Arabia has the same official policy. Though the U.S. State Department has noted no executions for “apostasy” (specifically, conversion to Christianity) since the late 1990s, the legal structure for such state-sponsored murder is still in place: “Freedom of religion does not exist. Islam is the official religion, and all citizens must be Muslims. . . . Conversion by a Muslim to another religion is considered apostasy. Public apostasy is a crime under Shari'a and punishable by death.”3 This was the Saudi policy by which Sadiq 'Abd al-Karim Mal Allah was beheaded for Bible smuggling in 1992.4
Though formal execution for Christian conversion is relatively rare, martyrdoms are plentiful in these lands. Perhaps the killing comes at the hands of police firing into crowds of peaceful Christian demonstrators. Thus, Feroz Masih died in Pakistan in 1997.5 More often, governments simply indulge the vigilante killing of believers. Such was the fate of Mehdi Dibaj in Iran, found dead only months after his release—a precedent instructive for Abdul Rahman.
Throughout the centuries and throughout the world, jurists and societies have debated the proper application of capital punishment—whether for theft, rape, arson, or treason. Many have concluded that it is appropriate only in cases of murder and that of the most heinous sort. Still others claim that nothing is so serious as to warrant execution. Yet today, from Iran to Sudan, from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan, Muslims prescribe death for God’s greatest gift to man—salvation.
It reminds one of the Pharisees who demanded death for the greatest man, Jesus Christ. What could be more perverse than that? Yet when grave religious error is accompanied by the fear of the loss of power, there is no limit to what fallen man can do. Of course, convert-killing Muslim governments have a point, just as Christ-killing Pharisees and Romans had a point: If the Church breaks free in their region, their days in power are numbered. But this does not excuse their barbarity, nor the indifference of multi-culturists and pragmatists who turn a blind eye toward it.
Tom Coghlan, “Hopes and Fears of Afghan Christians,” BBC News Website, March 31, 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/4865818.stm (accessed May 3, 2006).
“The Persecution of Christians in Iran,” Jubilee Campaign Website, http://www.jubileecampaign.co.uk/world/ira1.htm (accessed May 3, 2006).
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2001: Saudi Arabia,” U.S. Department of State Website, March 4, 2002, http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2001/nea/8296.htm (accessed May 3, 2006).
“Death Penalty,” Amnesty International: Saudi Arabia Website, September 23, 2000, http://www.amnesty.org/ailib/intcam/saudi/issues/dp.html (accessed May 3, 2006).
“Martyr Feroz Masih: A National Hero of Pakistani Christians,” Pakistan Christian Congress Website, http://www.pakistanchristiancongress.com/ferozeM.php (accessed May 3, 2006).