We recently received word of a landmark victory for religious freedom in a case we’re handling in the United Kingdom. We represent a Syrian married couple who are both former Muslims who became evangelical Christians. The husband was training to be a radical Muslim imam, but in 2003, he became a Christian and informed his family of his conversion. His family members told him that, if he did not return to Islam, they would “wash their shame,” meaning that he would be put to death. He left Syria for the United Arab Emirates and hid from his family out of fear that he might be found and harmed.
The couple received threats after beginning to share their Christian faith with Muslims on the Internet, including receiving a video of a beheading. The husband learned that his father and other people upset over his conversion to Christianity were looking for him and that his father had obtained a Syrian court order to the police to locate him. Due to the risk of death they both faced, the couple traveled to the United Kingdom, with the support of their local church, and sought asylum. They have continued to share their Christian faith during their time in the U.K.
If they were to be deported to Syria, they would face a clear risk of death under Sharia law due to their conversion to Christianity. Many converts from Islam to Christianity face great risk to their well being, including death, for accepting Christ and sharing their faith because apostasy—changing one’s religion from Islam to another faith—is a crime punishable by death under Sharia law. In addition, the United States Department of State has documented the Syrian government’s long and uninterrupted history of engaging in gross human rights violations including arbitrary arrest, forced disappearance, incommunicado detention, torture, and death.
We worked in conjunction with our international affiliate in defending the couple. In what is believed to be the first decision of its kind, an immigration court of appeals in the U.K. granted the couple asylum and noted the particular danger that Muslims who become evangelical Christians and share their faith in Muslim countries face. The court considered testimony on the fact that Muslim converts who become evangelical Christians face particular harm in Syria:
[W]hilst the Syrian Government may allow those who are already Christians to practise their religion, albeit within harsh and restricted guidelines, the condition of the Muslim convert to Christianity is one of life and death. Muslim converts are immediately disowned by their families and subsequently subject to a death threat issued by the local mosque. . . . [N]ot only would Syrian Muslims who had converted to Christianity be murdered for forsaking Islam but their murderers would go unpunished. Evangelising in Syria is permitted under the Constitution [but] is found to have the effect of “disturbing the public order.” The practise is highly discouraged and subjected to prosecution.
The court determined that the couple would be “at risk” of harm from their family and the authorities because they became evangelical Christians. The judge concluded: “In my judgment the evidence points in the direction of the Appellant’s contention that were he to return to Syria he not only could not practise his religion but he would also be in fear of his life.”
This case will serve as a powerful precedent to defend the lives and well-being of Muslim converts to Christianity around the world in future cases. At the same time, however, converts from Islam to other faiths continue to face grave danger. It has been reported that Iran’s parliament has approved a law that would require the death penalty for anyone convicted of apostasy. According to the report, under current Iranian law, apostasy is punishable by death, but the final decision rests with a judge. The report also states: “The new law is being debated in the Majlis of Iran (that nation’s parliament) and would mandate the death penalty for apostasy. . . . Only days before the vote, two Christian men were charged with apostasy and are still in custody. Iran is listed as a ‘country of particular concern’ by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and is ranked third on Open Doors’ ‘World Watch List’ for countries with the worst persecution of Christians.”
Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “[e]veryone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief. . . .”
However, Iran and other extremist Muslim countries have placed adherence to Sharia law above the recognition of universal human rights.
Barry, I’m sure you would agree that all governments—including Muslim governments—have a moral and legal obligation to respect the freedoms of speech and religion, including the right to change one’s religion and share one’s religious faith with others, right?