Earlier this weekend, the Vatican raised the question of whether they might participate in behind-the-scenes diplomacy to save the life of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the Iranian widow condemned to death for adultery. This is the first time that the Catholic Church has released a public statement on the case. In it, they were particularly vocal on stoning as a brutal form of capital punishment. Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi articulated the church’s opposition to the death penalty in general; he only hinted, however, at the future role of Vatican diplomats in attempts to save Ashtiani’s life.
Other world leaders have spoken out on Ashtiani’s behalf. Most recently, Carla Bruni was condemned by the Iranian media (which said, among other things, that she was a prostitute and herself deserved the death penalty) for writing an open letter declaring her support for Ashtiani. The Brazilian president appealed to the Iranian government, asking that they permit Ashtiani to seek safety in Brazil.
Pope John Paul II was known, in particular, for his attempts to save the lives of death-row inmates, but the Catholic Church has something of an ambiguous relationship with the death penalty. In a 1995 encyclical, John Paul II explained that the Church’s opposition to capital punishment was almost complete, writing that it was only acceptable “in cases of absolute necessity, in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today, however, as a result of steady improvement in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”
But Christian theologians and early Church fathers, as well as the Hebrew scriptures, often do not reflect this clear view. An absolutist position is difficult for Catholics to defend; rather, many modern theologians wrestle with the context in which the death penalty should be applied. And certainly, punishing Ashtiani for a crime like adultery (if she should, indeed, be punished at all) does not require bloody means.
It’s unclear whether Vatican diplomacy will have an effect on the ultimate verdict. But Iran and the Holy See do have something of a unique relationship; some cite structural and theological similarities between Catholicism and Shi’a Islam as one of the reasons for Iran’s large diplomatic corps in the Vatican. A 2007 Time article pointed out the possibility of Vatican-led mediation over the issue of Iran’s nuclear capabilities. So although Brazil, which has good relations with Iran, failed to move the government on Ashtiani’s behalf, the Vatican may have more luck.
Meanwhile, Ashtiani may have suffered lashing in prison as a result of a mix-up over a photo of a bare-headed woman with pink lipstick and earrings which the Times of London published, saying that it was Ashtiani. Five days later, the Times printed a retraction, saying that it was in fact an Iranian exile living in Sweden, but rumors are spreading that Ashtiani received 99 lashes in prison for “indecency” after the photo appeared.
Photo from the International Committee Against Stoning and the Death Penalty website - http://stopstonningnow.com/savesakine.html