Compass Direct News -- An Iranian judge has ordered the release of two pastors charged with "apostasy," or leaving Islam, but the defendants said the ruling was based on the court's false claim that they confessed to having never converted to Christianity.
Mahmoud Matin Azad, 52, said he and Arash Basirat, 44, never denied their Christian faith and believe the court statement resulted from the judge seeking a face-saving solution to avoid convicting them of apostasy, which soon could automatically carry the death penalty.
Azad and Basirat were arrested May 15 and acquitted on Sept. 25 by Branch 5 of the Fars Criminal Court in Shiraz, 600 kilometers south of Tehran.
A court document obtained by human rights organization Amnesty International stated, "Both had denied that they had converted to Christianity and said that they remain Muslim, and accordingly the court found no further evidence to the contrary."
Azad vehemently denied the official court statement, saying the notion of him being a Muslim never even came up during the trial.
"The first question that they asked me was, 'What are you doing?' I said, 'I am a pastor pastoring a house church in Iran," he told Compass. "All my court papers are about Christianity - about my activity, about our church and everything."
Members of Azad's house church confirmed that the government's court statement of his rejection of Christianity was false.
"His faith wasn't a secret - he was a believer for a long, long time," said a source who preferred to remain anonymous.
During one court hearing, Azad said, a prosecutor asked him, "Did you change your religion?" Azad responded, "I didn't have religion for 43 years. Now I have religion, I have faith in God and I am following God."
If the court misstated that the two men said they were Muslims, it likely came from political pressure from above, said Joseph Grieboski, founder of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy.
"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 said.
Ahmadinejad, who is facing re-election, has approval ratings hovering above the single digits and has faced international criticism for the apostasy law.
"What he does not need is bad press and bad political positioning," Grieboski said. "I would be shocked if the aquittal were not somehow involved in the presidential campaign."
International condemnation of the law and of the proposed mandatory death penalty for those who leave Islam come as Iran faces new rounds of U.N. economic sanctions for uranium enrichment.
Upon his release, Azad said that no reason was given for the court freeing him and Basirat. Disputing the court's allegation that they claimed to be Muslims, Azad said that he told his attorney, "Two things I will never say. First, I will not lie; second, I will not deny Jesus my Lord and my Savior."
The two men are grateful for their release, he said, but they worry that their acquittal might merely be a tactic by the Iranian government to wait for them to re-engage in Christian activity and arrest them again. Their release could also put anyone with whom they associate in danger, Azad said.
There is another worry that the government could operate outside the law in order to punish them, as some believe has happened in the past. The last case of an apostasy conviction in Iran was that of Christian convert Mehdi Dibaj in 1994. Following his release, however, Dibaj and four other Protestant pastors, including converts and those working with converts, were brutally murdered.
A similar motivation could have prompted the judge to release the two pastors. Leaving their deaths up to outside forces would abrogate him from personally handing down the death penalty, Grieboski said.
"Even in Iran no judge wants to be the one to hand down the death penalty for apostasy," he said. "The judge's motivation could have been for his own face-saving reasons, for the possibility of arresting more people, or even for the possibility that the two defendants will be executed using social means rather than government means. Any of these are perfectly legitimate possibilities when we start talking about the Iranian regime."
The court case against Azad and Basirat came amid a difficult time for local non-Muslims as the Iranian government attempted to criminalize apostasy from Islam.
On Sept. 9 the Iranian parliament approved a new penal code by a vote of 196-7 calling for a mandatory death sentence for apostates, or those who leave Islam. The individual section of the penal code containing the apostasy bill must be passed for it to go into law.
As recently as late August, the court was reluctant to release the two men on bail. At one point Azad's attorney anticipated the bail to be between $40,000 and $50,000, but the judge set the bail at $100,000.
The original charge against Azad and Basirat of "propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran" was dropped, but replaced with the more serious charge of apostasy.
Those close to the two pastors were relieved at the acquittal since they expected their detention to be lengthy.
"We had anticipated Azad's incarceration would be a while, and then we got this notice that they were released," said a family friend of Azad. "We were shocked by that."
Azad described his four-month incarceration in positive terms. He said that while in prison he was treated with respect by the authorities because he explained that he was not interested in political matters and was a pastor.