In January 2020, Iran introduced a new form that discriminates against religious minorities not protected under the constitution. The new form removed the option to select “other religion” in national identity cards. The card is a basic necessity to access government services and conduct banking activities. The new form forces all Iranians to declare themselves adherents of one of four religions recognized in the Iranian constitution: Islam, Christianity, Judaism, or Zoroastrianism. Unrecognized religious minorities will have to either lie and select one of the four choices —or forgo the card. "With this new rule, the Iranian government is effectively stripping many religious minorities in the country of their basic rights and access to the most fundamental services as citizens," said Hadi Ghaemi, the director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran.
The rule change came after Javad Abtahi, a conservative lawmaker from Isfahan Province, complained in January 2019 that selecting “other religion” legitimized “devious sects.” In his speech, Abtahi specifically referenced the Baha’i faith.
Critics argued that the new form violated the Iranian constitution. Article 19 states that “All people of Iran, whatever the ethnic group or tribe to which they belong, enjoy equal rights; and color, race, language, and the like, do not bestow any privilege,” while Article 23 stipulates that “the investigation of individuals’ beliefs is forbidden, and no one may be molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief.”
The constitution defines Twelver Ja’afari Shiite Islam as the official state religion. Since the 1979 revolution, Iran has only legally recognized Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian minority groups. Citizens of those faiths must register with the government to receive certain rights, including the freedom of assembly and the use of alcohol for religious purposes. They are also granted representation in parliament proportionate to their populations:
- Two seats for ethnic Armenian Christians,
- One for ethnic Assyrian and Chaldean Christians,
- One for Jews,
- One for Zoroastrians.
But the regime does not recognize other minorities, including Baha’is, Mandaeans, and Yarsanis. Since 1979, unrecognized minority groups have faced discrimination and harassment by the government, which has accused them of being fifth columns. In 2010, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said, “[Iran’s enemies] want to diminish the people’s faith in Islam and Islam’s sanctities. Inside the country, using various means they [want to] shake the foundation of the faith of the people, especially the young generation. From the spread of loose and shameless lifestyles, to the promotion of false mysticism - the fake variety of real mysticism—to the spread [of] Baha’ism, to the spread of a network of house churches. These are the actions that are being undertaken today—with tact and calculation and careful study—by enemies of Islam. And their goal is to weaken the religion within the society.”
The following are profiles of Iran’s unrecognized religious minorities.
Baha'is are the largest non-Muslim religious minority in Iran. The country is home to at least 300,000 Baha'is, most of whom reside in Tehran and the northern city of Semnan. The Baha'i diaspora numbers five million to six million in 187 countries. The central tenet of the Baha'i faith is unity. Baha'is believe that all religions of the world come from the same source and are merely different chapters of “one religion from God.”
The Baha'i religion was founded as an offshoot of Shiite Islam in the mid-19th century by Siyyid Ali-Muhammad, a Persian merchant from Shiraz. He claimed to have received a divine revelation that God would soon send the last great prophet. He later took the title of the Bab, Arabic for “the gate.” Shiite clerics condemned his teachings as blasphemous because Islam regards Muhammad as God’s final prophet. The Bab was arrested and executed by a firing squad in 1850.
The Babi movement quickly spread across Persia after his death. In 1863, the Bab’s followers embraced Baha'u'llah, an influential leader of the Babi movement, as the promised prophet. He was as one of the “Manifestations of God.” “Throughout history, God has sent to humanity a series of divine Educators—known as Manifestations of God—whose teachings have provided the basis for the advancement of civilization,” according to the Baha’i faith. The Baha'is believe that the Manifestations included Abraham, Krishna, Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad. They viewed Bahá’u’lláh as the latest and most important of God’s messengers.
Bahá’u’lláh taught that God cannot be known directly but intervenes throughout history through the lives of his prophets. Bahá’u’lláh preached that people from all faiths should work together for the common benefit of humanity.
The Islamic Republic considers the Baha’is members of a heretical sect. After the 1979 revolution, the regime systematically targeted leaders of the Baha’i community, some of whom had worked for the monarchy. In 1983, the regime banned the group’s governing bodies, the Local and National Spiritual Assemblies, and executed senior leaders. Many prominent Baha’is were arrested on charges of espionage and other national security violations.
In 1983, the government said, “The essence of Bahá’ísm is rather a successful experience by imperialism and the enemies of Islam… particularly Britain and the Czarist Russia… The fabricated mock Bahá’ísm has always been an instrument in sowing discord and disunion among the Muslim people.” Between 1979 and 1986, nearly 200 Baha’is were reportedly killed in a government crackdown.
Discrimination against Baha'is has continued. “Widespread and systematic attacks continue to take place against the Baha’i minority, including arbitrary arrests and imprisonment,” said Mansoureh Mills, an Amnesty International researcher. “According to reports, in 2018 alone, authorities arbitrarily detained at least 95 members [of the Baha’i Faith].” The government also discriminated against Baha'is by closing businesses, seizing property, restricting employment and education opportunities and the destroying Baha’i cemeteries.
Yarsanis, also referred to as Ahl-e-Haqq or People of the Truth, are estimated to number around three million in Iran. Nearly all Yarsanis are Kurdish and live in western Iran in Kurdish-dominated provinces such as Lorestan and Kermanshah. An additional 120,000 to 150,000 live in Iraq. The Iranian government does not recognize the Yarsani faith; officials have referred to it as a “misguided cult.”
Yarsanis follow a syncretic religion founded by Sultan Shahak in the late 14th century in western Iran. Shahak’s followers believed that he was one of seven manifestations of God. His teachings melded beliefs and practices from several different religions, including elements of Zoroastrianism and Shiite Islam. In Iran, Yarsanis have often been considered worshippers of Ali, the first imam of Shiite Islam, who they view as another manifestation of God. As a result, they are considered a heretical sect within Shiite Islam. But many Yarsanis deny that characterization since they do not observe traditional Islamic rituals.
The central tenet of Yarsan is to teach its followers the ultimate truth found in the Kalam-e Saranjam, its central religious text. Yarsanis believe souls achieve purification by passing through 1,001 incarnations. Worshippers gather once a month in religious meetings known as “jam.”
The regime has discriminated against the group by cracking down on Yarsani places of worship, religious monuments, religious speech, publications, education and communication in Kurdish. Yarsanis have also had difficulty finding employment and faced arrest and interrogation by Iranian intelligence.
After the 2016 parliamentary elections, Iranian security forces arrested more than 100 Yarsani activists in Iranian Kurdistan. The crackdown was reportedly directed by a conservative candidate who had won a seat in the elections. In December 2017, Seyyed Peyman Pedrood, a prominent Yarsani activist, disappeared after leaving his home in Karaj. His family later received unofficial information that he had been detained, according to a March 2018 report by the Kurdistan Human Rights Network. As of January 2020, there had been no information on his whereabouts.
Mandaeans reportedly number between 5,000 and 10,000 in Iran, most of whom live in the Khuzestan province near the border of Iraq. The Mandaean religion originated between the first and third centuries A.D. in southwestern Mesopotamia, which is in modern day Iraq. The region is important to the Mandaean faith because its followers rely on the Karoun River for baptism rituals. The population of the Madaean community in Iran and Iraq has decreased significantly due to religious persecution and the exodus of Mandaeans to the West during the 1980-1988 war with Iraq and after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Less than 5,000 Mandaeans remain in Iraq. The Iranian government does not recognize Mandaeaism as a religion, and its followers have often been persecuted for their beliefs.
Mandaeans adhere to a pre-Christian monotheistic religion based on the teachings of John the Baptist. They gradually arrived in Persia from the west in the first and second centuries A.D. They practice a form of Gnosticism that descended from ancient Mesopotamia and includes rituals similar to Zoroastrian and Nestorian traditions. They have a dualistic view of existence that is divided between the World of Light (good) and the World of Darkness (evil). Mandaeans believe Jesus was a false messiah but revere John the Baptist as one of God’s greatest prophets due to the miracles of healing that he performed.
Mandaeans practice baptism, a central tenet of their faith, every Sunday. They believe that immersion in flowing water, which symbolizes the creative life force, helps purify the soul. The faithful must reside near water to practice these sacred rituals, and the Mandaean place of worship, called a Mandi, is typically built along the banks of rivers or close to other natural sources of running water.
Mandaeans have been forced to hide their religious identity and perform many of their ceremonies in secret. "We cannot read the law, we cannot work in the municipality, we cannot own a supermarket, our doctors are not allowed to work in hospitals, we do not have any government records,” Sami Khamisi, a researcher and former member of the Mandaean Society, said in 2018. They are also deprived of their right to education and work by the Iranian regime. Since the 1979 revolution, Mandaeans have reportedly been banned from employment in state-owned companies. Most Mandaean applicants have reportedly been barred from admission to Iranian universities.
Mandaean homes, religious sites and graveyards have been routinely confiscated or vandalized. In 2011, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) reportedly seized a large Mandaean neighborhood in Ahvaz. The government evicted the residents and demolished their homes in the middle of the night without prior notification or explanation. The IRGC later claimed that the Mandaeans had been living on government-owned land. The residents claimed that the land was gifted to Mandaeans by Sheikh Khazal, who governed the area in the early 20th century.
Alex Yacoubian, a program assistant at the U.S. Institute of Peace, compiled this report.