INTERNATIONAL DIGEST: Christian pastors in Iran acquitted of apostasy

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--Charges of apostasy -- or leaving Islam -- against two pastors in Iran were dismissed, apparently on false grounds. One observer believes the move was designed to help the Iranian government save face in light of international pressure over its human rights record.

Mahmoud Matin Azad, 52, and Arash Basirat, 44, were acquitted of the charge Sept. 25 by a judge in Shiraz. A court document stated that both men "denied that they had converted to Christianity and said that they remain Muslim, and accordingly the court found no further evidence to the contrary," according to Compass Direct news service.

Azad said he and Basirat not only did not deny leaving Islam but were very plain about their faith in Christ. "The first question that they asked me was, 'What are you doing?' I said, 'I am a pastor pastoring a house church in Iran," Azad told Compass Direct. "All my [court] papers are about Christianity -- about my activity, about our church and everything."

Joseph Grieboski, founder of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, believes the dismissal of the case was the result of political pressure. "If the court did in fact lie about what he said, I would think it's part of the larger political game that [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and his factions are trying to play to garner political support for him," Grieboski told Compass Direct.

Todd Nettleton of Voice of the Martyrs pointed out that Iranian lawmakers are considering imposing the death penalty on anyone who leaves Islam. "The church is growing at simply an amazing rate. That is a part of the reason the government is so nervous about the Christians," Nettleton told Mission Network News. "That is part of the reason they're striking back and changing laws. That also means more people potentially face persecution; more people need our prayers."

EXTREMISTS EXECUTE WOMAN FOR ADULTERY -- A 23-year-old woman was stoned to death Oct. 27 in Kismayu, Somalia, by Islamic extremists who accused her of adultery. Asha Ibrahim Dhuhulow's death reportedly was the first such execution in two years. When a family member tried to intervene, guards opened fire, killing a child.

The crowd of people assembled for the execution were told she had submitted herself for the punishment, but eyewitnesses told the Reuters news service the woman was screaming as she was bound hand and foot.

The stoning was carried out by the Islamic Courts Union, which controlled much of Somalia until Ethiopian and Somali government forces toppled them in late 2006. The group recaptured the southern port of Kismayu in August 2008.

While an extremist spokesman promised to punish the guard who shot the child, the woman's execution was a violation of Islamic law, according to a relative. "The stoning was totally irreligious and illogical," a sister told Reuters. "Islam does not execute a woman for adultery unless four witnesses and the man with whom she committed sex are brought forward publicly."

RUSSIAN CASINO PLAN IN TROUBLE -- An ambitious plan to shut down casinos in Russia's major cities and create Vegas-style gambling destinations in remote parts of the country is in trouble -- and gaming industry experts warn illegal gambling could experience explosive growth if something isn't done.

The plan, which was signed into law in 2007 by then-President Vladimir Putin, was adopted in response to Russians' growing addiction to blackjack, roulette and poker, according to USA Today. Dozens of casinos were to be shut down by July 1, 2009, lavish resorts opened that would spur economic development in other parts of the country.

Finding investors for the new resorts has been difficult, however, even before the recent global economic woes. The government is considering a three-year delay to give more time for the resorts to be built.

Gambling in Russia generated $7.8 billion in revenue in 2006, roughly a fourfold increase since 2000, according to the USA Today article. Moscow's 34 casinos and innumerable slot machines generated $312 million in taxes in 2007.

The government is concerned about losing tax revenue created by gambling if the shutdown occurs before the new resorts are ready. The loss of 500,000 jobs and the prospect of organized crime expanding illegal gaming also worry officials.

CHINA TIGHTENS RULES ON ISLAM -- China is tightening rules on the observance of Islam in its remote Xinjiang region in the aftermath of Muslim separatist activity. Long lists of regulations include provisions such as sermons at Friday prayers running no longer than 30 minutes and public prayer being forbidden.

During the fall observance of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, government officials and their hand-picked mosque leaders emphasized the rules, which also allow only official versions of the Koran, Islam's holy book, and restrict participation in the "hajj" pilgrimage to official government tours, according to The New York Times.

One reason for the increased regulation of Islam is that Uighur Muslims in the region are resisting the control exercised by Chinese authorities in Beijing. Battles in August between Muslim separatists and government forces in Xinjiang killed at least 22 security officers and one civilian, according to official reports. Uighurs, who constitute 46 percent of Xinjiang's population, complain that the dominant Han Chinese discriminate against them.

The Chinese government is officially atheist but permits the practice of Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Taoism and Buddhism under the oversight of authorities, according to The Times. Government officials see separatism, terrorism and religious extremism as threats to stability in the region.


Compiled by Baptist Press assistant editor Mark Kelly.

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