UN Urged to Protect Muslims Who Change Religion

Campaigners for religious freedom have urged the United Nations to act to protect "Muslims who choose to convert to another faith."

A petition signed by almost 90,000 people in 32 countries was presented last week to U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, the organization spearheading the campaign said Monday.

The Barnabas Fund, a UK-based charity working among Christians in Islamic societies, said Muslims who change religions, often called "apostates," should be "free to do so without having to face a lifetime of fear as a result."

The organization's advocacy manager, Paul Cook, said the petition was launched a year ago on behalf of apostates who face persecution and prejudice in many countries.

Under Islamic (shari'a) law, Muslim men who decide to adopt another belief and refuse to return to Islam -- usually within a limited period of time -- may be put to death.

It remains a contentious point in Islam, but countries where people have been accused or convicted of apostasy include Sudan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Mauritania.

In 2002, a shari'a-based penal code was introduced in a Malaysian state controlled by an Islamist party. It said any Muslim who converted to another faith had three days to repent, failing which he faced having his property forfeited and being sentenced to death.

The criminal code of Mauritania similarly provides for a three day period of reflection and repentance for any Muslim guilty of apostasy "whether by word or action." "If he does not repent within this time limit, he is to be condemned to death as an apostate and his property will be confiscated by the Treasury."

Although the Koran says "there is no compulsion in religion" (sura 2:256), the Islamic canonical tradition called the Hadith contains references to execution for apostasy, including one in which Mohammed commands, "Any [Muslim] person who has changed his religion, kill him."

No reply

According to the Barnabas Fund, even in countries where converting to another religion is not punished by law, apostates often face hostility from their families and communities.

The organization said supporters of the campaign had over the past year written to Muslim political and religious leaders around the world, "urging them to speak out on this crucial issue."

In Britain, it said, not only has there been no reply from the Muslim Council, the main umbrella body, but also "virtually no response" from leaders of major Christian denominations who had been contacted.

"It is a tragic day when so few politician or religious leaders can be found who are prepared to stick their necks out by simply publicly affirming the most basic of human rights to change one's religion," said Barnabas Fund international director Dr. Patrick Sookhdeo.

He noted that the right to change religion had been enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for more than 50 years.

Sookhdeo said he hoped and prayed that campaign would "help to end the turning of a blind eye to the suffering of converts from Islam, and instead put their desperate needs firmly on to the international human rights agenda where they very much belong."

Last April, four experts held a panel discussion on apostasy in Geneva where the U.N. Commission on Human Rights was holding its 60th annual session.

One of them was Dr. Younas Sheikh, an intellectual who was freed in November 2003 after spending three years in prison in Pakistan accused of "blasphemy," most of that time on death row.

The Arabic word kafir has been used to describe both an "apostate" and a "blasphemer."

The Barnabas Fund says many people accused of "apostasy" are not converts at all, but rather Muslims who have questioned fundamentalist interpretations of Islam and called for a more tolerant approach.

They include Sudanese Islamic scholar Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, who was executed for apostasy in 1985, after publishing a leaflet calling for the reform of Islamic law to make it more just and humane.

In 2002, Iranian history professor Hashem Aghajari was sentenced to hang for blasphemy, after saying in a speech that Muslims were not "monkeys" and "should not blindly follow" clerics.

The death sentence was later reviewed after widespread student protests, and a retrial saw him jailed for five years instead. Last week, Aghajari was freed on bail.