US Report: Iran's Religious Freedom Abuses

October 15, 2015

Iran’s government reportedly continued to imprison, harass, intimidate and discriminate against people based on religious beliefs in 2014, according to an annual report by the U.S. State Department. It also notes that non-Muslims faced “substantial societal discrimination, aided by official support.”

At the October 14 rollout for the comprehensive report, Secretary of State John Kerry said that religious minorities should have the same rights as religious majorities. “Sadly, the pages of this report that is being released today are filled with accounts of minorities being denied rights in countries like Burma, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, many others,” he said. The following is the executive summary of the Iran section of the report and updated demographic information with a link to the full text.


Executive Summary

The constitution states that Ja’afari Shia Islam is the official state religion and that all laws and regulations must be based on “Islamic criteria” and official interpretation of sharia. It also stipulates that the five major Sunni schools be “accorded full respect,” enjoy official status in matters of religious education and certain personal affairs, and that, in regions where followers of one of the five Sunni schools constitute the majority, local regulations conform with that school within certain bounds. The constitution states, “within the limits of the law,” Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians are the only recognized religious minorities with protected ability to worship freely and to form religious societies, although proselytizing is prohibited. The government executed and jailed members of religious minority groups on charges of moharebeh (enmity against God) and anti-Islamic propaganda. The government discriminated against all religious minority groups in employment, education, and housing. Government rhetoric and actions created a threatening atmosphere for all non-Shia religious groups, most notably for Bahais. Government-controlled broadcast and print media continued negative campaigns against religious minorities.

Non-Muslims faced substantial societal discrimination, aided by official support. Some media outlets continued their campaign against non-Muslim religious minorities, and political and religious leaders made defamatory statements against them. There were reported problems for Bahais at different levels of society throughout the country. Non-Bahais were often pressured to refuse employment to Bahais and to dismiss Bahais from their private sector jobs. There were reports of Shia clerics and prayer leaders denouncing Sufism and the activities of Sufis in the country in both sermons and public statements.

On July 28, the Secretary of State redesignated Iran as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) and renewed the existing restrictions on certain imports from and exports to the country. The United States has no diplomatic relations with the country. The Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor addressed abuses and restrictions against Bahai, Christian, Jewish, and other religious minority communities in the country. Senior U.S. government officials publicly called for the release of prisoners held on religious grounds. The U.S. government supported religious minority groups in the country through its actions in the UN, including through votes to extend the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran and for resolutions expressing concern over the country’s human rights practices, including the continued persecution of religious minorities.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 80.8 million (July 2014 estimate). Muslims constitute 99 percent of the population; 90 percent are Shia and 9 percent Sunni (mostly Turkmen, Arabs, Baluchis, and Kurds living in the northeast, southwest, southeast, and northwest, respectively). There are no official statistics available on the size of the Sufi Muslim population; however, some reports estimate that several million Iranians practice Sufism.

Groups constituting the remaining 1 percent of the population include Bahais, Christians, Jews, Sabean-Mandaeans, Zoroastrians, and Yarsanis. The three largest non-Muslim minorities are Bahais, Christians, and Yarsanis. Bahais number approximately 300,000 and are heavily concentrated in Tehran and Semnan. According to UN data, 300,000 Christians live in the country, although some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) estimate there may be as many as 370,000. The Statistical Center of Iran reports there are 117,700. The majority of Christians are ethnic Armenians concentrated in Tehran and Isfahan. Unofficial estimates of the Assyrian Christian population range between 10,000 and 20,000. There are also Protestant denominations, including evangelical groups. Christian groups outside the country estimate the size of the Protestant community to be less than 10,000, although many Protestants reportedly practice in secret. Yarsanis, mainly located in Luristan and Gurani-speaking areas of southern Kurdistan, have often been classified by the government as Shia Muslims practicing Sufism. Yarsanis, however, identify Yarsan as a distinct faith (known in Iraq as Kaka’i). There is no official count of Yarsanis, but one NGO and some leaders in the Yarsani faith estimate there are up to one million. There are from 5,000 to 10,000 Sabean-Mandaeans. The Statistical Center of Iran estimated in 2011 that there were approximately 25,300 Zoroastrians, who are primarily ethnic Persians; however, Zoroastrian groups report 60,000 members. Similarly, Iranian census statistics in 2012 reported there were fewer than 9,000 Jews, while media estimate there are as many as 25,000.

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