Commentary

The Perils of Religious Persecution in Iran

The Islamic Republic of Iran often is in the news, and usually for all the wrong reasons. Tehran is suspected of developing nuclear weapons, though U.S. intelligence agencies see no evidence of an active nuclear weapons program. Iran also has a deteriorating human rights record.

The Islamic state is a particularly inhospitable home to religious minorities—Christians, Baha’is, Jews, Sunni Muslims. Iran is Exhibit #1 for the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalists gaining control of government.

Iran is not the most tyrannical government in the Middle East. America’s ally Saudi Arabia may deserve that title. Syria is the most dangerous, having slid into a full-scale civil war.

Nevertheless, Iranian repression is increasing and the space available to regime opponents is diminishing. Observed the Washington Post: “the anti-establishment energy that drove violent protests four years ago has disappeared, quashed by the heavy-handed crackdown in 2009 that followed Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s contested reelection.”

Iranian repression is increasing and the space available to regime opponents is diminishing.”

Genuine liberals long have been beyond the pale. Even respected Muslim leaders who differ from the dominant ruling faction face barriers to participating in the political process. Indiana University Professor Jamsheed Choksy recently warned that Iran was “expanding its crackdown on political, religious and social freedoms in advance of the June 14 [presidential] election.”

Even the United Nations has taken note. Last December the General Assembly approved a resolution, its 25th since 1985, criticizing Tehran for its brutal repression.

In February the UN released a highly critical 79-page assessment: “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran.” The Special Rapporteur, Ahmed Shaheed, concluded “that there continues to be widespread systemic and systematic violations of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Reports communicated by nongovernmental organizations, human rights defenders, and individuals concerning violations of their human rights or the rights of others continue to present a situation in which civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights are undermined and violated in law and practice.”

Naturally, the government refused to cooperative. After the report was published Iran’s Chief Justice Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani denied everything and said ratification of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 had been a mistake.  Unsurprisingly, the Special Rapporteur learned of intimidation and reprisals, when witnesses were tortured and threatened with death for reporting Tehran’s abuses. Such an environment creates a particularly dangerous environment for any minorities, and especially religious believers whose views are considered to be fundamentally illegitimate.

Among the many groups on the receiving end of the government’s brutality are non-Muslims and even non-traditional Shia Muslims, including Gonabadi Dervishes. Explained the Special Rapporteur: “adherents of recognized and unrecognized religions face discrimination in law and/or in practice. This includes various levels of intimidation, arrest and detention. A number of interviewees maintained that they were repeatedly interrogated about their religious beliefs, and a majority of interviewees reported being charged with national security crimes and/or propaganda against the state for religious activities. Several interviewees reported that they were psychologically and physically tortured.”

Iran’s abuses go back to the 1979 Islamic revolution. Last year the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom noted that Iran was “a constitutional, theocratic republic that discriminates against its citizens on the basis of religion.” The State Department’s last International Religious Freedom Report, published in 2011, noted simply that “The constitution and other laws and policies do not protect religious freedom and in practice, the government severely restricted religious freedom.”

The abuses are fundamental. Observed USCIRF: “The government of Iran continues to engage in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, including prolonged detention, torture, and executions based primarily or entirely upon the religion of the accused. State noted “Reports of government imprisonment, harassment, intimidation, and discrimination based on religious beliefs.” Moreover, both reports found the situation to be deteriorating.

All laws and regulations are to be “based on Islamic criteria.” The constitution formally accords “full respect” to Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians, who are supposed to be allowed to practice freely “within the limits of the law.” However, these three groups are not to proselytize and conversion from Islam is punished by death. Moreover, the Islamic regime cares little for constitutional niceties. Warned the USCIRF, “Even the recognized non-Muslim religious minorities protected under Iran’s constitution—Jews, Armenian and Assyrian Christians, and Zoroastrians—faced increasing discrimination, arrests, and imprisonment.”

More vulnerable are non-recognized groups, such as Baha’is, who are considered to be apostates. Noted State, “The government prohibits Baha’is from teaching and practicing their faith and subjects them to many forms of discrimination that followers of other religions do not face.” The Commission also pointed to Sufi Muslims and Jews, who had grown more fearful due to “Heightened anti-Semitism and repeated Holocaust denials by senior government officials.” Sunni Muslims are doubly vulnerable since they typically are ethnic minorities—Arabs, Kurds, and others.

Most threats to religious liberty come from the authorities. Reported State, “the government largely drove abuse of religious freedom.” Overall the situation was bleak. State warned that “Government rhetoric and actions created a threatening atmosphere for nearly all non-Shia religious groups, most notably for Baha’is, as well as for Sufi Muslims, evangelical Christians, Jews, and Shia groups that did not share the government’s official religious views.” The government-controlled media ran “negative campaigns against religious minorities,” who “reported arbitrary arrests, prolonged detentions, and confiscation of property.”

Moreover, “all religious minorities suffered varying degrees of officially sanctioned discrimination, particularly in areas of employment, education, and housing.” There was social discrimination as well, and “the government’s campaign against non-Shia allowed for an atmosphere of impunity for those elements of society that harassed religious minorities.” This behavior led to the designation by State of Iran as a Country of Particular Concern.

Increasing political opposition to the regime has intensified religious persecution. Noted the USCIRF: “Since the disputed 2009 elections, religious freedom conditions in Iran have regressed to a point not seen since the early days of the Islamic revolution. Killings, arrests, and physical abuse of detainees have increased, including for religious minorities and Muslims to dissent or express views perceived as threatening the legitimacy of the government.” Moreover, religious minorities often are charged with political offenses. Reported Choksy: “Most of the several hundred imprisoned members of religious minorities stand charged with threatening ‘national security’ and some even face capital punishment at the hands of revolutionary tribunals.”

Several religious minorities have been targeted by the regime. Baha’is, who are not recognized by the Koran and are seen as apostates, may suffer most. The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, called Tehran’s attacks among the most “extreme manifestations of religious intolerance and persecution.”  Human rights Special Rapporteur Shaheed said “Baha’is are the most persecuted religious minority in Iran.” Seven Baha’i leaders were arrested in 2008 and charged with “insulting religious sanctities” and anti-state propaganda. They now are serving 20-year sentences. Several more Baha’is have been arrested in recent months. Two mothers, Zahra Nik-A’in and Taraneh Torabi, are currently serving prison sentences with their infant children.

But the campaign is much broader. Iran observer Kamran Hashemi, writing in the Guardian, reported: “Iran’s state machinery now attacks the Baha’is at every level. Their leadership has been dismantled, access to higher education is denied, and business licenses are revoked. Baha’i-owned shops are sealed or burned to the ground, cemeteries are desecrated, homes are raided and property is confiscated. More than 500 have been arrested since 2004. Even their efforts to educate their own young were declared illegal.”

Christians also high on the regime’s enemies list. In 1990 Rev. Hossein Soodmand, a convert from Islam in 1960 when he was 13, was executed for apostasy. In 1994 Mehdi Dibaj was sentenced to death for apostasy. He was freed after international protests, but then Bishop Haik Hovsepian Mehr, who highlighted Dibaj’s plight, was kidnapped—perhaps by state security forces—and murdered.

The situation has been worsening. Barnabas Aid reported that “Persecution against Christians has increased in Iran in recent years to a point not seen since the early days of the Islamic revolution.” The group ascribed the campaign to concern “at the number of Iranian Muslims turning to Christ,” which has led Tehran to increase “the number of raids on church services, the harassment and threatening of church members, and the arrest and imprisonment of worshippers and church leaders.” According to the Hudson Institute’s Nina Shea, “over the past two years more than 300 Christians have been arrested and detained arbitrarily in Iran.”

Internal political tensions with the approaching presidential election may also be to blame. Kiri Kankhwende of Christian Solidarity Worldwide said that any faith other than Shia Islam is “interpreted as a challenge to the very state itself.” As a result, “There has been a noticeable increase in the harassment, arrests, trials and imprisonments of converts to Christianity, particularly since the beginning of 2012. In October seven members of an underground church in Shiraz were arrested and charged with evangelizing, disturbing the peace, threatening national security, and using the internet to harm the state.  More then 50 Christmas celebrants were arrested in Tehran, though most were released after interrogation. Rev. Vruir Avanessian, an ethnic Armenian, was taken to the infamous Evin House of Detention, but released the following month.”

Two other Christian ministers have become cause célèbre. Convert Youcef Nadarkhani was arrested in 2009, threatened with execution if he didn’t recant his faith, and then sentenced to death. He was ultimately retried and acquitted, released, rearrested, and then again released earlier this year.

Rev. Saeed Abedini, a convert from Islam who became an American citizen in 2010, was arrested in 2005 for his work with underground evangelical congregations but released. He has visited several times over the years and was detained in 2009, but released after promising to avoid involvement with house churches. Last year he returned to Iran to visit family and help build an orphanage and was arrested again. In January he was sentenced to eight years imprisonment—to be served at Evin Prison, noted for its brutal conditions—for threatening Iran’s national security. Two Christian converts were arrested on December 31, imprisoned at Evin, and charged with threatening national security.

Iran’s small Jewish community suffers through a public environment dominated by anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. Overt persecution was on display in 2000 when 13 Iranian Jews, including a rabbi, butcher, and teenager, were tried for allegedly spying for America and Israel. Ten of the 13 were convicted on dubious charges; the only good news was that all received prison terms. In the preceding 21 years since the Islamic revolution 17 Iranian Jews had been executed for allegedly spying.

Zoroastrianism is Iran’s oldest religion, but that has not insulated it from Islamic radicals. Although its adherents are thought to number under 100,000, and perhaps under 50,000, reported Choksy, “Communal gatherings are routinely monitored by fundamentalist Muslim authorities who allege that Zoroastrianism ‘threatens national security and subverts the Islamic revolution’.” Moreover, added Choksy, “Like members of the Christian, Jewish and Baha’i minorities, Zoroastrian activists who protest the theocracy’s excesses are sent to Tehran’s notorious Evin prison on charges of sedition.”

Although based on Shia Islam, Sufism, a more spiritual interpretation, has come under great pressure from the Shia Islamic government in Tehran. The Menatollahi Gonabadi Sufi order is believed to have more than two million members, and has been called a “danger” to Islam by the ruling faction. Reported Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: Members of the Gonabadi order “have come under increasing state pressure over the past four years; three of their houses of worship have been demolished.”

Sunni Muslims have been prevented from building their own mosque in Tehran and have been forcibly prevented from gathering for prayer in rented facilities. Sunnis report that there situation has been worsening in recent years.

The government also has targeted dissenting majority Shia clerics (as well as women and journalists). This is the most striking evidence that cynical political objectives are driving some if not much religious persecution.  Over the last four years Shia clerics have been prohibited from questioning the 2009 election or the government’s brutal response to demonstrators. Moreover, noted the Commission, “a number of senior Shia religious leaders who have opposed various religious and political tenets and practices of the Iranian government also have been targets of state repression, including house arrest, detention without charge, trial without due process, torture, and other forms of ill treatment.” If that can happen to a member of the majority religious group, the extreme vulnerability of religious minorities is obvious.

The regime even targets lawyers who defend religious minorities. Last October human rights lawyer Mohammad Ali Dadkhah began serving a nine-year sentence in Evin prison,. He was convicted for “membership in an association [the Centre for Human Rights Defenders] seeking to overthrow the government and propaganda against the system.” The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, protested the case. His spokesman, Rupert Colville, explained that “The case against [Dadkhah] is widely believed to be linked to his work as a human rights defender.” Dadkhah is the fourth CHRD member imprisoned in the last 18 months. Previously he was tortured and imprisoned for 74 days in 2009. Punishing those who defend human rights activists brings back nightmares of the Soviet Union.

The West’s leverage over Iran is minimal. Some activists have criticized the Obama administration for not doing more, but it is not clear what more could be done, given the sanctions already imposed regarding the nuclear issue.

There may be a better hope of using international popular pressure. Explained Choksy, “Despite their heavy-handed actions, the Islamic Republic’s hard-liners seek to present their rule as benevolent and humane,” and therefore the regime has been “exhibiting rising concern about negative public perceptions of its rule.”

Individuals, groups, and activists, especially those which have not been at the forefront of the campaign to sanction and even bomb Iran, should press the Iranian government and other entities, from media to business, and protest the manifold violations of human rights. Visiting officials should be embarrassed by protestors. The regime should understand that its fight against sanctions for its nuclear activities continues to be undermined by its brutality at home.

Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rappoteur, confirmed that public pressure works. In March he noted that “At least a dozen lives were saved because of the intervention of international opinion.” More such action is needed.

Iranians suffered under the Shah’s rule for a quarter century before being liberated by the Iranian revolution. Which, sadly, imposed an even more oppressive tyranny. The Iranian people are overdue for a revolution which truly liberates.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.