Real Clear World -- Iran's War on Religion

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December 30, 2013 | By Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett

The following op-ed appeared in Real Clear World on December 28, 2013.

December 28, 2013 - With the approach of a new year comes the hope of peace among and within nations. But as our nation explores peace on the nuclear front with Tehran, members of Iran 's diaspora community in the United States and other concerned Americans must wonder when Iran will cease its war against its own people and their rights, including freedom of conscience and religion.

Consider the eight-year jail sentence handed down in January, upheld in September and imposed without due process on the Iranian-born American citizen, Pastor Saeed Abedini. His crime? Somehow, he was "threatening national security" through his involvement in Iran's house church movement. After holding Abedini in solitary confinement in Evin prison, Tehran compounded the injustice, transferring him last month to the forbiddingly harsh Gohardasht prison.

The outrage perpetrated against Abedini reflects Iran's misconduct against religious minorities, especially Christians and Baha'is, but also Zoroastrians, Jews and Sufi and Sunni Muslims, as well as majority Shi'a dissenters. It is with good reason that, since 1999, the United States has designated Iran a Country of Particular Concern (CPC), marking it a world-class religious freedom violator.

Today, decades after Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, the regime's radically theocratic character is unchanged. Any Iranian dissenting from its interpretation of Shi'a Islam may be branded an enemy of the state and a potential target for abuse, including detention, torture, imprisonment and even execution. The UN Special Rapporteur's October report found that since 2010 more than 300 Christians have been arrested and detained; as of July, at least 20 Christians were detained or imprisoned.

While all of Iran's Christians face a regime that restricts their rights, Tehran reserves some of its harshest treatment for Protestants. Next to the Baha'is, authorities view the Protestant community, comprised largely of evangelically minded individuals, as their most serious spiritual competitor for Iranian hearts and minds.

The vast majority of Iran's Protestants are, like Abedini, converts from Islam. While conversion to or from a faith is an internationally guaranteed right, Iran's leaders deem conversion from Islam an act of apostasy against Islam and Iran's character as an Islamic state, punishable by death. Revolutionary courts also charge converts with political crimes such as harming national security or contact with a foreign enemy. These courts apply such unfounded charges to innocent religious activities such as meetings with foreign Christians, associations with overseas Christian organizations or attending Christian seminars outside of Iran.

Despite talk of reform since Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, took office in August, Baha'i and Christian prisoners remain in jail and a crackdown on Protestant Christians has brought a new wave of arrests. Conditions are at levels not seen since the early years of the revolution.

In the face of these abuses, what can the United States do?

First, it must keep Iran a Country of Particular Concern.

Further, Congress should reauthorize for multiple years, and President Obama should then sign into law, the Lautenberg Amendment, a lifeline for Iranian religious minorities seeking refuge in the United States.

Tehran must release Pastor Abedini and all other prisoners whose only "crime" is exercising their right to freedom of conscience and religion. We invite members of Congress to join the Defending Freedoms Project, an initiative of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in conjunction with USCIRF and Amnesty International, and "adopt" prisoners of conscience, including Iranian prisoners, becoming their voice and spotlighting Tehran's tyranny.

Finally, as it highlights the innocent, Washington must do more to call out the regime's guilty parties, starting with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. It should bar them from the country and freeze their assets. At this point, the European Union is outpacing the United States in sanctioning these abusers. Earlier this month, White House National Security Advisor Susan Rice said, "Our sanctions on Iran's human rights abusers will continue and so will our support for the fundamental rights of all Iranians." These promising words must translate into concrete deeds by our Treasury and State departments.

No government has the right to make war on anyone's conscience. As the New Year approaches, Pastor Abedini and others belong at home with their spouses and children, not in a jail cell for following the call of conscience.

Washington must tell Tehran: Prove your peaceful intentions abroad by ceasing your war against conscience at home.

Katrina Lantos Swett is the Vice Chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

To interview a USCIRF Commissioner, please contact USCIRF at media@uscirf.gov or 202-786-0613.

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