On July 24-26, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hosted the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington. Foreign ministers, international organization representatives, religious leaders, civil society leaders, and other stakeholders gathered to promote religious freedom and discuss ways to combat religious persecution and discrimination. At the end of the event, the United States presented several statements of concern for others to sign on to, including one on Iran. “As representatives of the international community, we stand together in condemning the systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom taking place in Iran and call on authorities to ensure religious freedom for all,” they said. Iran dismissed the statement. “The U.S. and other violators of the most natural and obvious human rights are not in a position to make biased judgments about other countries with different cultures and diversities,” said Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bahram Ghassemi on July 30. Three of the statements are below, followed by Iranian reaction.
Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom
Statement on Iran
As representatives of the international community, we stand together in condemning the systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom taking place in Iran and call on authorities to ensure religious freedom for all. Many members of Iranian religious minorities – including Baha’is, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Sunni and Sufi Muslims – face discrimination, harassment, and unjust imprisonment because of their beliefs.
The Iranian regime continues its crackdown on Gonabadi Sufis. Hundreds remain unjustly detained, with several deaths reported at the hands of Iran’s brutal security forces. In June, Iran executed by hanging a Sufi bus driver following a trial described by international monitors as “grossly unfair”, while it continues to hold the group’s religious leader, Dr. Noorali Tabandeh, under house arrest, denying the 91-year old man much needed medical care. Baha’is also face particularly severe ill-treatment. As with many other minority communities, Iranian authorities reportedly harass, arrest, and mistreat Baha’is on account of their faith, and in May the Baha’i International Community reported an uptick in arbitrary arrests and raids across the country. One Baha’i leader, Afif Naeimi, jailed because of his religious affiliation, continues to serve a 10-year prison sentence handed down in 2008 despite his declining health. Iranian authorities also routinely employ anti-Baha’i rhetoric, close Baha’i businesses, and deny Baha’is access to education.
The Government of Iran continues to execute dissidents, political reformers, and peaceful protesters on charges brought because of their peaceful religious beliefs or activities. Blasphemy, apostasy from Islam, and efforts to proselytize Muslims are punishable by death, contrary to Iran’s international human rights obligations. Authorities monitor Christian religious practices closely to enforce a prohibition on proselytizing, which continued to result in the jailing of pastors and members of house churches. Shia Muslim religious leaders who do not support government policies also face intimidation and arrest. There are reports that Sunni Arabs are routinely harassed and tortured because of their religious beliefs, and even executed for crimes such as blasphemy that could not be justified as “most serious crimes” under Iran’s international human rights obligations. The religious books and teachings of these communities are largely banned throughout the country.
Countries that respect and ensure religious freedom and other human rights are more secure, stable, and peaceful than those that do not. We strongly urge the Government of Iran to cease its violations of religious freedom and ensure that all individuals – regardless of their beliefs – are treated equally and can live out their lives and exercise their faith in peace and security.
Statement on Counterterrorism as a False Pretext for Religious Freedom Repression
As representatives of the international community, we condemn the justification of violations of religious freedom, targeting of religious groups, and repression of peaceful political dissent by civil society actors, including members of religious communities, under the guise of counterterrorism or other security imperatives. While underscoring the necessity of effective, rights-respecting counterterrorism policies, we deplore the misuse and abuse of any laws and practices to impose state power at the expense of respect for religious freedom and other civil and political rights. Security tactics that violate human rights have been demonstrated to strengthen and validate terrorist recruitment and radicalization to violence.
We therefore commit ourselves to continuing to support persons and communities that have been subject to terrorist violence and to holding the perpetrators of terrorism accountable using policies, practices, and laws that comply with international human rights and humanitarian laws. When working to prevent or mitigate the drivers of violent extremism and terrorism, we emphasize that our own actions and behaviors are critical to success and urge our partners to do the same. We will promote accountability for government officials responsible for violations of religious freedom and other human rights and encourage reports of such violations to be investigated through relevant mechanisms, because failure to implement accountability measures exacerbates the drivers of the problem, further undermining our security worldwide.
Statement on Blasphemy/Apostasy Laws
As representatives of the international community, we stand together in support of the interconnected freedoms of religion and expression. We stand in firm opposition to laws that impede the freedom of individuals to choose a faith, practice a faith, change their religion, not have a religion, tell others about their beliefs and practices, and openly debate and discuss aspects of faith or belief. Such laws are inconsistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Numerous countries maintain laws criminalizing blasphemy, apostasy, or speech that might “defame” or “insult” religious sentiments. Such laws are often used as a pretext to justify vigilantism or mob violence in the name of religion, or as a false pretense to settle personal grievances. We see governments using such laws to punish individuals whose views on matters of religion or belief may differ from official narratives or the views of majority populations.
We will work collectively to encourage governments that maintain these laws to free any individuals imprisoned on such grounds, and to work toward the universal repeal of blasphemy, apostasy, and other laws that similarly impede freedoms of expression and religion or belief. We remain committed to working with partners to help tackle problems like discrimination and violence based on religious intolerance in ways that do not interfere with fundamental freedoms, including freedom of religion and freedom of expression.
Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bahram Ghassemi
“The U.S. and other violators of the most natural and obvious human rights are not in a position to make biased judgments about other countries with different cultures and diversities.”
“At the moment, all divine religions in Iran are represented in the Iranian parliament and other bodies while enjoying all citizenship rights.”
“Unfortunately, fighting against other religions and ethnic groups has spread to this region from the Western side of the world leading to catastrophes at times.”
—July 30, 2018, in a statement