Twenty-five years ago, Ronald Reagan was on the campaign trail. John Paul II was a fresh-faced but little known pope from Poland. The economy of the United States was in the grip of something called “stagflation.” A sweater-clad and overmatched Jimmy Carter was picking up the pieces of a disastrous rescue mission as student radicals shouting “Death to America” held American Embassy staff hostage.
The ayatollah was consolidating his grim Islamic Revolution in Iran, forcing a relatively moderate and modernized Muslim state back to the supposed purity of seventh-century religious law. But instead of bringing paradise on earth, the theocrats who took power brought with them a venal repression that made thousands of Iranians long for the “good old days” of the shah.
Hamid Pourmand was a 22-year-old Iranian Muslim who, perhaps seeing the brutal side of Islam, wanted something more. Quietly, Pourmand changed his ultimate allegiance from Allah to Christ. It was a step of courage that thousands of Iranians have taken since the mullahs took over. Islamic law denies the universal human right of Muslims to change their religion, and Iran enforces this law more strictly than most. Those who commit the “crime” of apostasy know that the prescribed punishment is execution.
Not just Christians are at risk, however. The Shiite mullahs also target those who do not follow their particular branch of Islam, including Sunnis and Sufis, who face widespread discrimination and torture. The country’s 300,000-350,000 followers of the Baha’i religion are called “heretics” and may not have houses of worship, schools, or independent religious associations. Some 10,000 Baha’is have lost their government or university jobs, and 200 Baha’i leaders have been killed.
Since 1999, the State Department has designated Iran as a “country of particular concern” when it comes to religious freedom, noting, “The government of Iran engages in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, including prolonged detention, torture, and executions based primarily or entirely upon the religion of the accused.”
This brings us back to Pourmand, now 47, who by last fall was a colonel in the Iranian army. He is also a lay pastor in the evangelistically active Assemblies of God church. He and his wife, Arlet, are raising two boys, Immanuel and David. Last September 9, authorities broke up a church conference and arrested 86 pastors and church leaders. Pourmand was among them. Most were out after a few days, but not Pourmand, who spent several months in solitary confinement.
A Muslim convert in the army could not be ignored. It is against the law for a non-Muslim to serve as an officer in the Iranian military.
On February 16, a military court found Pourmand guilty of deceiving the armed forces about his faith. Pourmand presented evidence that his superiors knew about his beliefs, but the court rejected his claim and gave him a three-year sentence. To save their own skins, his superiors now apparently deny they knew about his faith in Christ. Pourmand launched an appeal, the status of which is uncertain.
Upon conviction, Pourmand lost his salary and pension, and his wife and boys were kicked out of military housing. One source noted, “His family has nothing now. No salary, no house, nothing.”
That would be injustice enough, but someone in the Islamic hierarchy has decided to make an example of Pourmand to the thousands who have converted to Christ–and the thousands more who may be considering doing so. His case was given to an Islamic court in Bandar-i-Bushehr.
Pourmand now faces charges of converting to Christ and of proselytizing Muslims–both of which carry death sentences upon conviction. The court was expected to hear his case earlier this month, but so far human-rights advocates have been unable to ascertain his status. Pourmand is reportedly being held in a group cell in Tehran’s infamous Evin Prison.
“Either he will be forced to return to Islam,” Charles Colson quoted one Iranian Christian as saying, “or he will face a very big problem now.”
Assemblies of God pastor Hussein Soodman, also a Muslim convert, was executed for apostasy on December 3, 1990. Several other Christians have simply been murdered. Pourmand is the first Iranian to be formally charged with apostasy since 1993, and observers worry more such cases could be in the offing. Many groups, including the European Union and Christian Solidarity Worldwide, are calling on Iran to spare Pourmand’s life.
Of course, life is cheap to the mullahs who run Iran. Facing growing protests and discontent, they continue zealously pursuing Muslim purity no matter the cost. A ruinous war with Iraq killed tens of thousands. The government continues to block peace in the Middle East and is a prime sponsor of terrorism. Iran is even seeking to acquire nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.
After the attacks of September 11, President Bush called Iran a member of the “axis of evil.” At the time, there were widespread howls of protest from members of the more “enlightened” mainstream media.
Will there be a similar outcry now on behalf of Pourmand?