Georgetown Journal of International Affairs--Iran v. Its People: Abuses Against Religious Minorities

Jun 25, 2013


6/20/2013|By Katrina Lantos Swett

The following appaeared in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs on June 20, 2013

In an increasingly volatile world, few threats to peace compare to the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iranian government. For the Iranian people, however, the government already is at war and its enemy is their human rights. Iran’s leaders continue to rank among the world’s most serious religious freedom abusers, engaging in and tolerating systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of the fundamental right to freedom of religion or belief. Each year since 1999, the United States has designated Iran a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) based on recommendation of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

Katrina Lantos Swett is currently the Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). She established the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice in 2008 and serves as its President and Chief Executive Officer. She also teaches human rights and American foreign policy at Tufts University. Previously, she worked on Capitol Hill as Deputy Counsel to the Criminal Justice Sub-Committee of the Senate Judiciary Committee for then Senator Joe Biden. Dr. Swett holds a B.A. from Yale University, a J.D. from the University of California, and a Ph.D. in History from the University of Southern Denmark.

Iran is a theocracy with a constitution that proclaims the Twelver (Shi’i) Jaafari School of Islam to be the official religion of the country. The head of state, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution and directly controls the armed forces, the internal security forces, and the judiciary. All legislation passed by the Majles (parliament) is reviewed for adherence to Islamic and constitutional principles by the Guardian Council, six of whose 12 members are appointed by the Supreme Leader. The Guardian Council also screens and disqualifies candidates for all elective offices based on vague and arbitrary requirements, including candidates’ ideological and religious beliefs. Disputes over legislation between the parliament and the Guardian Council are adjudicated by the Expediency Council, an advisory body appointed by the Supreme Leader. Five seats in the parliament are reserved for recognized religious minorities, two for Armenian Christians, one for Assyrian Christians, and one each for Jews and Zoroastrians.

According the government, about 90 percent of Iranians are Shi’i Muslims and approximately 4 to 8 percent adhere to Sunni Islam, with the rest of the population being either Sufi Muslims or members of non-Muslim religious minorities. Baha’is remain the largest non-Muslim minority group, followed by Christians. Besides Muslims, the government extends official recognition to Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians based on theological criteria. The government reserves some of its most brutal persecution for Baha’is and other groups who remain unrecognized.

Manifestations of Iran’s religious freedom violations range from daily acts of discrimination to severe punishments including prolonged detention, torture, and executions based upon the religion of the accused. By any measure, these abuses have been accelerating in recent years. In June 2009, Iranian citizens protested en masse against the legitimacy of President Ahmadinejad’s re-election—displaying the breadth and depth of opposition on political, ideological, human rights, and religious freedom grounds—and the government of Iran issued a brutal response. Since then, human rights and religious freedom conditions have descended to levels not seen since the current regime forcibly instituted its vision of Shi’a Islam after the 1979 revolution. Dozens have been killed and thousands arrested, convicted, and given lengthy prison terms; meanwhile, charges such as “waging war against God,” “spreading corruption on earth,” and “moral corruption” have led to several executions.

Freedom for Iranians of all religions and beliefs, and those who reject any religion, has been impaired; however, Iran’s religious minorities—including Baha’is and even the officially recognized Zoroastrians, Christians, Jews, and Sufi and Sunni Muslims—have borne the brunt of the oppression.

In March 2011, the UN Human Rights Council created a Special Rapporteur position for Iran—which had not existed since 2002—to investigate and report on the government’s human rights abuses, a longstanding USCIRF recommendation. In August 2011, Ahmed Shaheed, the former Maldivian foreign minister, began his new role as Special Rapporteur. The Iranian government has failed to respond to his request to visit Iran, and various officials have said publicly that he would never be permitted in the country.

On February 28, 2013, the Special Rapporteur released his most recent report to the UNHRC which focused on a wide range of violations, including those faced by Baha’is, Christians, Sufi and Sunni Muslims, and dissident Shi’i Muslims, and included a detailed list of Baha’is and Christians in prison. In this report, he wrote that he remains “deeply concerned about the human rights situation facing religious minorities in Iran.”

In October 2012, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon had issued his annual report on Iran’s human rights situation, which included details of abuses, such as arbitrary detentions and false imprisonment, against religious minorities, particularly Baha’is and Christians.

In December 2012, for the 10th year in a row, the U.S. government co-sponsored and supported a successful UN General Assembly resolution on human rights in Iran, which passed 86 to 32, with 65 abstentions. The resolution condemned the Iranian government’s poor human rights record, including its continued targeting of religious minorities.

By any measure, Iran’s religious freedom environment, especially for its religious minority communities, remains poor. What follows is an analysis of their plight and USCIRF’s key recommendations on how to respond.

Activity against Sunni and Sufi Muslims

Among Iran’s religious minorities are several of the country’s ethnic minorities—Arabs, Baluchis, Kurds, and Turkmen—who practice Sunni Islam. These groups are discriminated against on two counts: ethnic identity and faith. Sunni leaders regularly are intimidated and harassed by intelligence and security services and report widespread official discrimination. The Sunni community also faces discrimination in government employment, particularly in leadership positions in the executive and judicial branches.

Sunni leaders have reported widespread abuses and restrictions on their religious practice, including detentions and abuse of clerics and bans on Sunni teachings in public schools and Sunni religious literature, and Sunni mosques have been destroyed in eastern Iran. In recent years, dozens of Sunni clerics reportedly were arrested for spreading Sunni teachings.

Iran’s government has also been stepping up its harassment and arrests of its Sufi Muslim minority, including prominent leaders, while increasing restrictions on places of worship and destroying Sufi prayer centers and hussainiyas (meeting halls).

Over the past few years, authorities have attacked or demolished prayer centers and have detained hundreds of Sufis, sentencing many to imprisonment, fines, and floggings. In September and October 2011, for example, a Sufi from the Gonabadi order was killed and several were injured during a government crackdown in Fars province in southwestern Iran, during which the Basij militia arrested at least 60 Sufis. At least seven remain in detention. Four attorneys who defended Sufi leaders in court were arrested in September 2011, and three of them continue to be held in Evin Prison on charges of insulting the Supreme Leader, “spreading lies,” and holding membership in a “deviant group.” Iranian state television regularly airs programs denigrating and demonizing Sufism.

Persecution of Baha’is

Among Iran’s non-Muslim religious minority communities, the Baha’i community is the “most persecuted religious minority in Iran,” according to Ahmed Shaheed. Iranian authorities view Baha’is, who number at least 300,000, as “heretics” to be repressed on apostasy grounds. Since 1979, these authorities have killed more than 200 Baha’i leaders and dismissed more than 10,000 from government and university jobs. In the past two years alone, incidences of harsh treatment against Baha’is—including increasing numbers of arrests and detentions and violent attacks on private homes and personal property—have increased in number. The Baha’i community faces additional economic pressure as authorities often pressure private employers of Baha’is to fire them and as Baha’is are regularly denied business licenses.

Baha’is may not establish places of worship, schools, or any independent religious associations in Iran. They are barred from the military and are denied government jobs and pensions as well as the right to inherit property. In addition, their marriages and divorces are not recognized, and they have difficulty obtaining death certificates. Baha’i cemeteries, holy places, and community properties often are seized or desecrated, and many of their important religious sites have been destroyed.

Emboldened by Iranian law and policy, militant societal actors have physically attacked Baha’is and have vandalized Baha’i homes and businesses with impunity. In the city of Rafsanjan, a recent wave of arson attacks on Baha’i-owned businesses appears to be part of a campaign to fracture relationships between the local Baha’is and Muslims. Since October 2010, dozens of shops have been attacked and more than 20 Baha’i homes and businesses have received letters warning that Baha’is will suffer severe consequences for forming friendships with Muslims.

A March 2013 report released by the Baha’i International Community notes that more than 660 Baha’is have been arrested since 2005. By the end of 2012, at least 110 Baha’is were being held in prison solely due to their religious beliefs, ten times the number incarcerated in 2005. Dozens of Baha’is await trial while others have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from 90 days to several years. Human rights groups report that more than 500 Baha’is have active cases pending against them, despite having been released from detention. In at least three recent cases, Iranian authorities have incarcerated young infants along with their Baha’i mothers, subjecting the babies to great health risk.

Several articles in media outlets such as government-controlled newspaper Kayhan, whose managing editor is appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, have vilified and demonized the Baha’i faith and community. An October 2011 report by the Baha’i International Communitysummarized the relentless propaganda against the Baha’is as follows:

“They are accused of being agents for various imperialist or colonialist factions; they face continuous but utterly unfounded allegations of immorality; they are branded as social pariahs to be shunned. The propaganda is shocking in its volume and vehemence, its scope and sophistication, cynically calculated to stir up antagonism against a peaceful religious community whose members are striving to contribute to the well-being of their society.”

The Iranian government bars Baha’i youth from undergraduate or graduate studies since it does not formally recognize their religion. In addition to these formal restrictions, Iranian authorities have recently conducted raids in at least four different cities. They raided more than 30 homes of Baha’is involved with the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), making arrests and confiscating books, documents, computers, and other materials. While several Baha’is were released shortly after being detained, seven were tried and found guilty of membership in a deviant sect conspiring against Iran’s national security; they were given prison sentences of either four- or five-year terms. Since 2008, seven additional Baha’i leaders—“the Baha’i Seven”—have been jailed by the government based on an assortment of dubious charges ranging from espionage to “corruption on the earth.” Their attorneys, including Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, reiterate that the charges against them are baseless.

Persecution of Christians

Besides its severe mistreatment of Baha’is, Iran’s government also continues to repress Christians—particularly Evangelicals and other Protestants—who are subject to harassment, arrests, close surveillance, and imprisonment. Based on numerous interviews with Iranian converts to Christianity, lawyers, activists, and journalists, an unprecedented report released in January by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran meticulously documents a pattern of abuse that extends to all Protestants in Iran. It concludes that Christian converts face severe restrictions on religious practice and association, arbitrary arrests and detentions for practicing their faith, and violations of the right to life through state execution for apostasy and extrajudicial killings. As a result of their plight, many Christians have reportedly fled from Iran.

In September 2012, Ahmed Shaheed reported that more than 300 Christians have been arrested and detained arbitrarily since 2010.

After two years in jail, Christian pastor Yousef Nadarkhani was sentenced to death for apostasy in November 2011. Though he had never been a Muslim as an adult, Iranian prosecutors applied the apostasy law because of his Islamic ancestry. Rejecting his appeal in June 2011, the court suspended the sentence contingent upon his recanting his faith, which he refused to do during hearings in September. Facing mounting international pressure over his plight, officials released Nadarkhani in 2012, only to rearrest him on Christmas, and then release him again in January 2013.

In a particularly outrageous miscarriage of justice, Judge Pir-Abassi, a jurist notorious for perpetrating religious freedom violations, on 27 January 2013 sentenced Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-born American pastor, to eight years in prison for “threatening the national security of Iran.” His alleged crimes included his participation since 2000 in Iran’s house church movement and his more recent efforts to raise money for an orphanage. Human rights groups hold that his trial was unfair and the whole legal process deeply flawed. Reportedly, he has spent many weeks in solitary confinement in Evin Prison where he has suffered mental and physical abuse by authorities.

Five Iranians who converted to Christianity recently went on trial in Iran’s Revolutionary Court. They were arrested in October 2012 on “evangelism” and other charges after security forces in the city of Shiraz raided a house church during a prayer session. The five men are members of the Church of Iran, one of the country’s largest house church movements. On 8 February 2012, Iranian authorities raided a house church gathering in Shiraz, confiscated religious materials, and arrested 10 Christian converts, four of whom remain in detention without charge.

Status of Zoroastrians, Sabean Mandaeans, and Jews

Like Christians, members of Iran’s Zoroastrian community are considered protected religious minorities yet suffer increased repression and discrimination. In August 2011, a Zoroastrian man, Mohsen Sadeghipour, began serving a four-and-a-half year prison term after being charged and convicted of propaganda of the Zoroastrian faith. Several of his relatives were convicted and imprisoned in 2010 on blasphemy and other charges.

Over the past few years, the Sabean Mandaean religious community, whose members, like Baha’is, are unprotected, have been facing intensifying official harassment. There continue to be reports that members, who number between 5,000 and 10,000, experience societal discrimination and pressure to convert to Islam, and they are often denied access to higher education. In recent years, hundreds of Sabean Mandaean families have reportedly fled the country.

While Jews in Iran hold the same protected religious minority status as Christians and Zoroastrians, government discrimination continues to be pervasive, fostering a threatening atmosphere for the approximately 20,000-25,000-member Jewish community, the largest Jewish community in the Middle East outside of Israel.

Official Iranian policies promoting anti-Semitism have risen sharply in recently years, and Jews have been targeted on the basis of perceived ties to Israel. President Ahmadinejad and other top political and religious leaders made public remarks denying the Holocaust and calling for the elimination of the state of Israel. There has continued to be officially-sanctioned anti-Semitic propaganda, involving official statements, media outlets, publications, and books. Recently a prominent newspaper held a Holocaust denial cartoon contest and the government sponsored a Holocaust denial conference; meanwhile, numerous programs on state-run television regularly broadcast anti-Semitic messages, and anti-Semitic cartoons show demonic and stereotypical images of Jews and Jewish symbols.

According to the State Department, education of Jewish children has become increasingly difficult in recent years, and distribution of Hebrew religious texts is strongly discouraged.


Given Iran’s abysmal human rights and religious freedom record, how should the United States respond? It should continue to work closely with its European and other allies, in bilateral and multilateral fora, to apply pressure on the Iranian government through advocacy, diplomacy, and targeted sanctions with the aim of halting the government’s human rights and religious freedom violations.

To that end, USCIRF recommends that the United States continue to designate Iran as a “Country of Particular Concern” or CPC, confirming it as among the world’s worst violators of freedom of religion or belief.

The United States also should call on Iran’s government to release all prisoners who have been jailed on account of their religion or belief, and drop all charges against those who have cases pending against them.

Further, Washington should continue to identify Iranian government officials and agencies responsible for particularly severe violations of religious freedom, including but not limited to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Finally, the United States should continue to bar from entry into the United States and freeze the assets of any Iranian government official identified as having engaged in particularly severe religious freedom violations.


Absent continued pressure on the Iranian government, little is likely to change, including the regime’s mistreatment of Iranians who dare to dissent from its theocratic dictates and policies. Given the enormous power concentrated by law and fact in the hands of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and like-minded clerics, the long-term outcome of Iran’s recent presidential election probably will be business as usual, unless the mullahs decide that change is required for their survival.

Meanwhile, especially for the nation’s persecuted religious minorities, the status quo is intolerable. Iran’s abuses against religious freedom and its unrelenting crackdown on religious minorities demand the world’s attention and action.