US Report: Religious Freedom in Iran

August 10, 2016

Iran’s government reportedly continued to imprison, harass, intimidate and discriminate against people based on religious beliefs in 2015, according to an annual report by the U.S. State Department. The following are excerpts.

Executive Summary

The constitution declares the country to be an Islamic Republic, and Ja’afari Shia Islam to be the official state religion. It states all laws and regulations must be based on “Islamic criteria” and official interpretation of sharia. The constitution states citizens shall enjoy human, political, economic, and other rights, “in conformity with Islamic criteria.” The penal code specifies the death sentence for proselytizing and attempts by non-Muslims to convert Muslims, as well as for moharebeh (“enmity against God”) and sabb al-nabi (“insulting the prophets”). The constitution stipulates the five major Sunni schools be “accorded full respect” and enjoy official status in matters of religious education and certain personal affairs. “Within the limits of the law,” the constitution states Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians are the only recognized religious minorities permitted to worship freely and to form religious societies, although proselytizing is prohibited. The government executed at least 20 individuals on charges of moharebeh, among them a number of Sunni Kurds. A number of other prisoners, including several Sunni preachers, remained in custody awaiting a government decision to carry out their death sentences. According to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center database, at least 250 members of minority religious groups remained imprisoned, including Sunnis, Bahais, Christian converts, Sufis, Yarsanis, and Zoroastrians. Shia religious leaders who did not support government policies reportedly continued to faced intimidation and arrest. The government continued to harass Bahais, and regulated Christian religious practices closely to enforce the prohibition on proselytizing. Security officials continued to raid prayer sites belonging to Sunnis. Government-sponsored public denunciations of the Bahai faith increased. Anti-Semitic rhetoric also continued to appear in official statements. There were reports of authorities placing restrictions on Bahai businesses or forcing them to shut down.

Non-Muslims and non-Shia reportedly continued to face societal discrimination, especially the Bahai community, which reported continuing problems at different levels of society, including personal harassment. There were reports of non-Bahais being pressured to refuse employment to Bahais or dismissing Bahais from their private sector jobs. Shia clerics and prayer leaders reportedly continued to denounce Sufism and the activities of Sufis in both sermons and public statements.

The United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran. The U.S. government used public statements, sanctions, and diplomatic initiatives in international forums to condemn the government’s abuses and restrictions on worship by religious minorities. Senior U.S. government officials publicly reiterated calls for the release of prisoners held on religious grounds. The United States supported religious minority groups in the country through actions in the UN, including votes to extend the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran and support for resolutions expressing concern over the country’s human rights practices, including the continued persecution of religious minorities. Since 1999, Iran has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On February 29, 2016, the Secretary of State redesignated Iran as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing travel restrictions based on serious human rights abuses under section 221(a)(1)(C) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

The government executed at least 20 individuals on charges of moharebeh, according the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. A number of other prisoners, including several Sunni preachers, remained in custody on death sentences. According to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center database, at least 250 religious practitioners remained imprisoned because of their religious affiliation or activities, including Sunnis, Bahais, Christian converts, Sufis, Yarsanis, and Zoroastrians. Shia religious leaders who did not support government policies reportedly continued to face intimidation and arrest. The government continued to harass Bahais and to regulate Christian religious practices closely to enforce the prohibition on proselytizing. Security officials continued to raid and demolish existing prayer sites belonging to Sunnis; the government reportedly barred the construction of new Sunni mosques. Government sponsored public denunciations of the Bahai Faith increased. Government officials also continued to employ anti-Semitic rhetoric in official statements. There were reports of authorities placing restrictions on Bahai businesses or forcing them to shut down.

According to Amnesty International and other international human rights NGOs, the government convicted and executed dissidents, political reformers, and peaceful protesters on charges of moharebeh and anti-Islamic propaganda. The Iran Human Rights Documentation Center reported the government executed at least 20 individuals on charges of moharebeh. According to the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), in June the government executed a Sunni Kurd, Mansour Arvand, in West Azerbaijan Province on charges including moharebeh. According to multiple sources, including the NGO Iran Human Rights (IHR) , on March 4, the government executed six Kurdish Sunni prisoners – Hamed Ahmadi, Jamshed Dehghani, Jehangir Dehghani, Kamal Molayee, Seddigh Mohammadi and Syed Hadi Hosseini – in Rajai Shahr Prison in Karaj, near Tehran, on charges of moharebeh.

In October the Supreme Court upheld the 2012 death sentence for Kurdish Sunni preacher Shahram Ahmadi on charges of moharebeh. As of year’s end, Ahmadi was awaiting execution in Rajai Shahr Prison.

Sunni prisoners Mohammad Kayvan Karimi, Amjad Salehi, and Omid Payvand, along with 24 others, remained in custody awaiting execution following the Supreme Court’s confirmation at the end of December of their death sentences for “enmity against God through spreading propaganda against the system.” According to Human Rights Watch, their trials lacked basic safeguards, such as the right to testify in their own defense, and the authorities denied some of the accused access to a lawyer of their own choosing before and during their trials.

On August 1, the Islamic Revolutionary Court sentenced to death Mohammad Ali Taheri on new charges of “corruption on earth.” Taheri, founder of the spiritual doctrine “Interuniversalism,” had already served four years of a 37-year sentence for “insulting the sanctities” and had reportedly been in solitary confinement since 2011 in Ward 2A of Evin Prison (the ward supervised by the Revolutionary Guards). He went on a hunger strike following the announcement of the sentence. According to the media, the Supreme Court annulled his death sentence in December and referred his case back to the court which sentenced him to life in prison. He remained in prison at the end of the year.

The Supreme Court commuted the death sentence for blogger Soheil Arabi on the charge of “insulting the Prophet Muhammad” on Facebook, reducing the punishment to reading 13 religious books and studying theology for two years, according to media and NGO reports.

The October report submitted to the UN by Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, cited a semi-official news outlet as the source of information on the government’s punishment of more than 480 people by flogging during the first 15 days of Ramadan for not observing fasting requirements. The government officially reported only three flogging punishments for failure to observe Ramadan.

According to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center database of prisoners, at least 380 religious practitioners remained imprisoned at the end of the year for their membership in or activities on behalf of a minority religious group, including approximately 250 Sunnis, 82 Bahais, 26 Christian converts, 16 Sufis, 10 Yarsanis, three Sunni converts, and two Zoroastrians.

There continued to be reports of arrests and harassment of Sunni clerics and congregants. On June 29, Iranian authorities detained seven Ahvazi Sunnis –Mehdi Heydari, Abdul-Hakim Khasraji, Sajjad Alhaei, Heydar Naseri, Ayoub Heydari, Ahmad Badawi and Abbas Badawi – for attempting to carry out Sunni rituals during Ramadan. As of year’s end, there was no update on their status.

Security forces arrested Sheikh Qassem Jaber al Abbas, a leader of the al-Bawi tribe from the village of Arab Rashed, on April 23, for leading Sunni congregational prayers, according to Sunni monitoring groups. As of the end of the year, he remained in detention.

The government often charged Bahais with violating the Islamic penal code prohibiting activities against the state and with spreading falsehoods, including disseminating “propaganda against the system” or crimes related to threatening national security. Seven Bahai leaders – Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Behrouz Tavakkoli, Saeid Rezaie, Vahid Tizfahm, and Mahvash Sabet – remained in detention at year’s end, serving sentences of up to 20 years from convictions in 2011 for “espionage for Israel”, “insulting religious sanctities,” “corruption on earth,” and “propaganda against the Islamic Republic.” On April 22, authorities demolished the home of Jamaloddin Khanjani in Semnan, despite a Supreme Court order to stay the demolition, according to IHR.

Muslim converts to Christianity reportedly continued to face harassment, arrest, and detention. According to UN reports, on April 15, the Shahin Shahr Revolutionary Court upheld the one-year prison sentence and two-year travel ban of 13 Christian converts who were arrested in 2013 at a house church and were charged with “propaganda against the State,” “advocating for evangelical Christianity,” and “establishing house churches.”

According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, the police arrested 14 Protestants on November 10, in Varamin. Most of them were members of the Protestant Emmaus Church in Tehran, which authorities had forced to close in 2012 for conducting services in Farsi. There was no reported information on the charges leveled against the 14.

Numerous Christians remained imprisoned at year’s end. According to HRANA, Ebrahim Firouzi, who was held since 2013 with violent offenders in Ward 10 of Rajai Shahr Prison (rather than in Ward 12 with prisoners of conscience) for converting to and practicing Christianity, went on a hunger strike to protest his continued detention after completing his original sentence in January. According to Mohabat News, he ended the hunger strike in June after authorities agreed to an improvement in his prison conditions, but he remained in prison under a new five-year sentence imposed in 2014 for “collusion against national security.”

According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, five Jewish schools and two kindergartens continued to operate in Tehran, but their principals were required to be Muslim. The government reportedly continued to allow Hebrew instruction but limited the distribution of Hebrew texts, particularly nonreligious texts, making it difficult to teach the language, according to the Jewish community. Although the government did not require Jewish students to attend Saturday classes, it reportedly required Jewish schools to remain open on Saturdays, in violation of Jewish religious law, to conform to the schedule of other schools.

According to human rights activists, the government maintained a legal interpretation of Islam which required citizens of all faiths to follow strict rules based on the government’s interpretation of Shia jurisprudence, creating differentiation under the law between the rights granted to men and women. The government continued to enforce gender segregation throughout the country without regard to religious affiliation.

Representatives of minority religious groups reported the government continued to avoid investigating crimes committed against members of religious minority groups and against their property, including religious sites and graveyards.

Jewish community representatives said they were free to travel in and out of the country, and the government generally did not enforce legal restrictions against travel to Israel by Jews, although it enforced this prohibition against other citizens.

The government officially did not limit voting rights on account of religion. It continued to permit Sunnis to serve in the Majlis. Through the end of the year, the Guardian Council, assigned by the constitution to confirm the eligibility of candidates for the presidency, had deemed only Shia Muslim males eligible to be president.

The government appointed its first Sunni ambassador, Dr. Saaleh Adibi, originally from the Iran Kurdish region, to be ambassador to Cambodia and Vietnam.

Sunnis reported continued discrimination by the government, but said it was sometimes difficult to distinguish whether the cause of discrimination was religious or ethnic, since most Sunnis were also members of ethnic minority groups.

Click here for the full report.