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A British charity has issued a petition challenging Muslim leaders to call for reform or reinterpretation of the Islamic law of apostasy.

Under Shariah, or Islamic law, Muslims who convert to another faith and refuse to repent must be put to death.

The petition by the England-based Barnabas Fund asks for signatures from those who believe “Muslims who choose to convert to another faith should be free to do so without having to face a lifetime of fear.”

The group acknowledges the tradition is upheld and taught by most Muslim religious leaders around the world. But it notes a reformist interpretation that claims an apostate can be put to death only if he also is a danger to the Islamic state.

Traditionalists insist, nevertheless, every apostate is a danger to the Islamic social order and has committed high treason.

Some schools of Shariah teach the death penalty should be applied to women as well. Other punishments prescribed by Shariah include annulment of marriage, removal of children and loss of all property and inheritance rights.

In countries such as Iran, Sudan and Saudi Arabia, converts have faced imprisonment, death threats, torture and beatings. Some have been executed, and others have died in prison or disappeared. Barnabas also notes converts often face widespread hostility and aggression from their own families and communities even in more moderate Muslim countries and in Western nations where Muslims are a minority.

Patrick Sookhdeo, the Barnabas Fund’s international director, cited a recent example from the Kurdish authority area of Northern Iraq. Ziwar Muhammad Isma’il was shot and killed at a taxi stand Feb. 17, he said, “simply because Ziwar was a Muslim who had chosen to convert to Christianity.”

“At the beginning of the 21st century, it is outrageous that such brutal persecution of converts is still taking place,” Sookhdeo said. “It is time the world took notice and began to demand an end to it.”

A statement by Barnabas said, while “Islamic societies are not unique in their persecution of converts, only in Islam are the death penalty and other harsh punishments for converts such a well attested, accepted and orthodox part of traditional religious law.”

The petition urges Western governments, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights and other international institutions to urgently raise the issue with Muslim leaders and organizations.

It appeals to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which affirms the right of individuals to “change” their religion and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which upholds the right to “adopt” a religion of choice without fear of persecution.

In recent years, Barnabas said, moderate Muslim organizations such as Malaysia’s Sisters in Islam and the Islamic Research Academy of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the most important institution in the Sunni stream of Islam, increasingly have called for a reinterpretation of Islamic teaching on apostasy to make it more just and humane.

“Through its new petition, Barnabas Fund is calling on all people of good will to help moderate Muslims by lending their support to these calls for change,” the group said.

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