Religious freedom conditions continued to deteriorate in Iran in 2015 and 2016, according to a new report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. President Hassan Rouhani has fallen short on his campaign promises to improve the status religious minorities. The commission found that government actions “continued to result in physical attacks, harassment, detention, arrests, and imprisonment.”
The commission also recommended Iran’s re-designation as a “country of particular concern,” or CPC. The State Department first designated Iran as a CPC on religious freedom in 1999. The United States has imposed restrictions on imports and exports to Iran under the International Religious Freedom Act since 2011. The following are excerpts from the report, followed by a link to the full text.
Religious freedom conditions continued to deteriorate over the past year, particularly for religious minorities, especially Baha’is, Christian converts, and Sunni Muslims. Sufi Muslims and dissenting Shi’a Muslims also faced harassment, arrests, and imprisonment. Since President Hassan Rouhani was elected president in 2013, the number of individuals from religious minority communities who are in prison because of their beliefs has increased, despite the government releasing some prisoners during the reporting period, including Iranian-American pastor Saeed Abedini. 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. While Iran’s clerical establishment continued to express anti-Semitic sentiments, the level of anti-Semitic rhetoric from government officials has diminished in recent years. …
Religious Freedom Conditions 2015–2016
Over the past few years, the Iranian government has imposed harsh prison sentences on prominent reformers from the Shi’a majority community. Authorities charged many of these reformers with “insulting Islam,” criticizing the Islamic Republic, and publishing materials that allegedly deviate from Islamic standards. Dissident Shi’a cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Kazemeni Boroujerdi continued to serve an 11-year prison sentence, and the government has banned him from practicing his clerical duties and confiscated his home and belongings. He has suffered physical and mental abuse while in prison. According to human rights groups and the United Nations, some 150 Sunni Muslims are in prison on charges related to their beliefs and religious activities. In October 2015, an Iranian court sentenced to death a Sunni cleric, Shahram Ahadi, who was arrested in 2009 on unfounded security related charges. More than 30 Sunnis are on death row after having been convicted of “enmity against God” in unfair judicial proceedings. Leaders from the Sunni community have been unable to build a mosque in Tehran and have reported widespread abuses and restrictions on their religious practice, including detentions and harassment of clerics and bans on Sunni teachings in public schools. Additionally, Iranian authorities have destroyed Sunni religious literature and mosques in eastern Iran.
Iran’s government also continued to harass and arrest members of the Sufi Muslim community, including prominent leaders from the Nematollahi Gonabadi Order, while increasing restrictions on places of worship and destroying Sufi prayer centers and hussainiyas (meeting halls). Over the past year, authorities have detained dozens of Sufis, sentencing many to imprisonment, fines, and floggings. In June 2015, a criminal court sentenced Abbas Salehian to 74 lashes for “committing a haram act through advocating Gonabadi Dervish beliefs.” In May 2014, approximately 35 Sufis were convicted on trumped-up charges related to their religious activities and given sentences ranging from three months to four years in prison. Another 10 Sufi activists were either serving prison terms or had cases pending against them. Iranian state television regularly airs programs demonizing Sufism.
The Baha’i community, the largest non-Muslim religious minority in Iran, long has been subject to particularly severe religious freedom violations. The government views Baha’is, who number at least 300,000, as “heretics” and consequently they face repression on the grounds of apostasy. Since 1979, authorities have killed or executed more than 200 Baha’i leaders, and more than 10,000 have been dismissed from government and university jobs. Although the Iranian government maintains publicly that Baha’is are free to attend university, the de facto policy of preventing Baha’is from obtaining higher education remains in effect. Over the past 10 years, approximately 850 Baha’is have been arbitrarily arrested.
As of February 2016, at least 80 Baha’is were being held in prison solely because of their religious beliefs. These include seven Baha’i leaders – Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naemi, Saeid Rezaie, Mahvash Sabet, Behrouz Tavakkoli, and Vahid Tizfahm – as well as Baha’i educators and administrators affiliated with the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education, some of whom were released during the reporting period. During the past year, dozens of Baha’is were arrested throughout the country. In January 2016, in the Golestan province, 24 Baha’is were sentenced to prison terms ranging from six to 11 years after being convicted for membership in the Baha’i community and engaging in religious activities. …
Over the past year, there were numerous incidents of Iranian authorities raiding church services, threatening church members, and arresting and imprisoning worshipers and church leaders, particularly Evangelical Christian converts. Since 2010, authorities arbitrarily arrested and detained more than 550 Christians throughout the country. As of February 2016, approximately 90 Christians were either in prison, detained, or awaiting trial because of their religious beliefs and activities.
Some Christians were released from jail during the year, including two long-serving prisoners of conscience, Saeed Abedini (released in January 2016) and Farshid Fathi (released in December 2015). Abedini’s early release was part of a prisoner swap between the United States and Iran. He had been serving an eightyear prison sentence for “threatening the national security of Iran” for his activity in the Christian house church movement. Fathi had been serving an extended prison term on trumped-up security charges related to his religious activities. …
Jews and Zoroastrians
Although not as pronounced as in previous years, the government continued to propagate anti-Semitism and target members of the Jewish community on the basis of real or perceived “ties to Israel.” In 2015, high-level clerics continued to make anti-Semitic remarks in mosques. Numerous programs broadcast on state-run television advance anti-Semitic messages. Official discrimination against Jews continues to be pervasive, fostering a threatening atmosphere for the Jewish community. In a positive development, the government no longer requires Jewish students to attend classes on the Sabbath. In recent years, members of the Zoroastrian community have come under increasing repression and discrimination. At least four Zoroastrians were convicted in 2011 for propaganda of their faith, blasphemy, and other trumped-up charges remain in prison.
Human Rights Defenders, Journalists, and Others
Iranian authorities regularly detain and harass journalists, bloggers, and human rights defenders who say or write anything critical of the Islamic revolution or the Iranian government. Over the past couple of years, a number of human rights lawyers who defended Baha’is and Christians in court were imprisoned or fled the country. In addition, in August 2015, a revolutionary court sentenced to death Mohammad Ali Taheri, a university professor and founder of a spiritual movement (Erfan Halgheh or Spiritual Circle), for the capital crime of “corruption on earth.” In October 2011, Taheri had been convicted and sentenced to five years in prison and 74 lashes for “insulting religious sanctities” for publishing several books on spirituality; reportedly, he has been held in solitary confinement since his conviction. Some of Taheri’s followers also have been convicted on similar charges and sentenced to prison terms ranging from one to five years. In December, the Iranian Supreme Court overturned Taheri’s death sentence. At the end of the reporting period, he and some of his followers remained in prison.
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