A senior Iranian cleric has ruled that death by stoning is not the only possible punishment for adultery, opening the way for women lawmakers who have campaigned against the practice to propose a bill banning stoning.
"In certain circumstances, death by stoning can be replaced by other methods of punishment," Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi said in a written fatwa, or religious ruling, obtained Sunday by The Associated Press.
The ruling did not elaborate and Shirazi was not immediately available for comment.
Shirazi is a highly influential cleric in the city of Qom — Iran's religious center. Abiding by the ruling of senior clerics is considered a religious obligation for the country's Shiite-dominated Muslim population.
Earlier this month, Iran's 11 women lawmakers asked Shirazi's blessing before submitting a bill to the 290-seat legislature to abolish stoning.
Though Shirazi did not directly cite the lawmakers or ban stoning, his ruling gives the lawmakers a green light to submit their bill.
"This is a victory for reformist lawmakers who seek to end discrimination against women," reformist lawmaker Fatemeh Rake'i told the AP.
"Our Islamic laws need to be updated and meet demands of the modern time."
If the bill is endorsed by the legislature, which is dominated by lawmakers in favor of reform, it has to be approved by the conservative Guardian Council, a legislative oversight body controlled by hard-liners.
Ayatollah Hussein Mousavi Tabrizi, another senior cleric in Qom, about 80 miles south of the capital Tehran, said stopping stoning was a response to the "demands of modern age."
"Any punishment, including stoning, that defames Islam or depicts a bad picture of the religion in the world is harmful to Islam and it is fully Islamic to stop it," he told the AP.
Although it was widely imposed in the early years after the 1979 Islamic revolution, stoning now is rarely applied.
No official figures are available, but based on newspaper reports, at least two stoning sentences were carried out in 2001. The sentence was handed down several times in 2002 but it was unclear if any executions were carried out.
European Union officials who visited Iran earlier this month to discuss human rights said Iranian officials "signaled their intention" to put a moratorium on stoning.