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Religion and Society

Apostasy: if Sin is a Crime

Author: Giorgio Paolucci, Camille Eid Title: I cristiani venuti dall'Islam. Storie di musulmani convertiti Publisher: Piemme, Casale Monferrato, 2006 pp. 220

When receiving the Moroccan ambassador on 20 February 2006, Benedict XVI called for 'respect for the religious beliefs and practices of others so that in a mutual way in all societies the practice of freely chosen religion is assured for everyone'. This was an explicit appeal to religious freedom as a fundamental component of international co-existence and inter-religious dialogue, a subject dear to Pope Ratzinger and one that characterised the long pontificate of John Paul II. It is within this horizon that one should locate the 'knot' of apostasy in Islam which in its classic definitions and in the dominant mentality of the contemporary Muslim world forbids people to change their religion. Apostasy is rewarded with the death penalty on Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Sudan, the Yemen and Mauritania, and in other countries it involves being put in prison or various limitations within the context of family law and the law of succession, in the exercise of civil rights and in public functions. It can happen that the apostate loses his or her job, is subject to the confiscation of his or her goods or has his or her children taken away (they have to receive a Muslim upbringing and education). In definitive terms what the Muslim tradition condemns as a sin is seen at a juridical level as a crime, something that is in line with the overlaying of the religious plane with the civil plane typical of a large part of Muslim history. According to a saying attributed to Mohamed, every man is born a Muslim: apostasy thus denies his deepest identity and at the same time causes injury to the umma, to what the Koran defines as the best community that God has ever given to men. For this reason, the apostate must be punished, and if the state does not intervene it is not unusual for individual Muslims to feel that they themselves should act by practicing a kind of private justice in the name of Allah, something that can even involve the killing of the 'traitor'.

 

Yet many Muslim intellectuals contest that the punishment of apostates has a foundation in the Koran and emphasise that behind the accusations is concealed a desire to get rid of difficult political or intellectual opponents. In this sense, the contemporary debate on apostasy is to be placed within the travails of contemporary Islam which for decades has had to deal with the increasing influence of fundamentalist currents and negative shifts in the direction of terrorism. A documented picture of this debate is offered by the Jesuit Samir Khalil Samir in the preface to the volume I cristiani venuti dall'Islam. Storie di Musulmani convertiti by Giorgio Paolucci and Camille Eid. The phenomenon of conversions from Islam, which has been almost completely ignored by the mass media, is examined in this work in detail: an analysis of the juridical situation of apostasy in the various Islamic countries is accompanied by numerous testimonies gathered in Italy and the world which undermine the common view that Islam is an immutable and impermeable monolithic bloc. The fascination that the Christian Event has exercised for two thousand years in every latitude even penetrates the hearts of a large number of people who grow up within the Muslim tradition and leads them to address the 'provocation' of God made man and companion of humanity. And it thus happens, as some converts relate in the pages of this book, that baptism becomes the completion of the search for Mystery and at the same time a 'new beginning'.

 

This volume is an original contribution to the debate on religious freedom and throws light on a very widespread reality but a reality that is little known about, not least because of the situation of semi-secrecy in which many 'neo-Christians' are forced to live. And in its analysis it helps us to understand how much still has to be done before there is a full application of article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: 'Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance'.

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