US Report: Religious Freedom in Iran

August 15, 2017

DoS sealIran’s government continued to imprison, harass, intimidate, and discriminate against people based on religious beliefs in 2016, according to an annual report by the U.S. State Department. “In Iran, Baha’is, Christians, and other minorities are persecuted for their faith. Iran continues to sentence individuals to death under vague apostasy laws – 20 individuals were executed in 2016 on charges that included, quote, ‘waging war against God,’” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said at the release. Since 1999, the Islamic Republic has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Bahram Qassemi dismissed the report as “unrealistic, unfounded and biased” in a press conference on August 16. "The US administration is expected to take legal and practical measures more rapidly to support the freedom of religion, especially regarding the Muslims' rights in the US, instead of judgment about the situation of freedom of religion in other countries,” he said.

The following are excerpts from the State Department report.

Executive Summary

The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic, and specifies Ja’afari Shia Islam as 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 prophet”). The law prohibits Muslim citizens from changing or renouncing their religious beliefs. The constitution stipulates the five Sunni Islamic schools named therein shall be “accorded full respect” and official status in matters of religious education and certain personal affairs. “Within the limits of the law,” the constitution states Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians (excluding converts from Islam) are the only recognized religious minorities permitted to worship and to form religious societies. The government executed individuals on charges of moharebeh, including more than 20 Sunni Kurds. The Iran Prison Atlas, compiled by the nongovernmental organization (NGO) United for Iran, stated at least 103 members of minority religious groups remained imprisoned for their religious activities, 198 individuals on charges of moharebeh, and 31 on charges of “insulting Islam.” Shia religious leaders who did not support government policies reportedly continued to face intimidation and arrest. The government continued to harass, interrogate, and arrest Bahais, Christians, Sunni Muslims, and other religious minorities and regulated Christian religious practices closely to enforce the prohibition on proselytizing. It reportedly denied building permits for places of worship and employment and higher educational opportunities for members of religious minorities and confiscated or restricted their religious materials. Security officials continued to raid Sunni prayer sites and prevent the construction of new ones. The government continued to use anti-Semitic and anti-Bahai rhetoric in official statements, as well as promote Holocaust denial. There were reports of authorities discouraging employment of Bahais and placing restrictions on Bahai businesses or forcing them to shut down.

A man stabbed a Bahai to death on September 26, telling police afterwards he did so because of the victim’s religion. According to multiple sources, non-Muslims and non-Shia, especially the Bahai community, continued to face societal discrimination and harassment, and employers experienced social pressures not to hire Bahais or to dismiss them from their private sector jobs. According to Sufi media and NGOs, Shia clerics and prayer leaders continued to denounce Sufism and the activities of Sufis in both sermons and public statements. Yarsanis reported they continued to face discrimination and harassment. Bahais reported there were at least three incidents of destruction or vandalism of their cemeteries.

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. In May the Department of State condemned the detention of the seven members of the Bahai leadership council and the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom repeatedly criticized the country’s discrimination against Bahais and other religious minorities. 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 re-designated 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

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 government executed more than 20 Sunni Kurds on charges of moharebeh and incarcerated numerous prisoners on varying charges related to religion. According to the U. S.-based NGO United for Iran, there were 198 political prisoners incarcerated on charges “waging war against God,” 31 for “insulting Islam,” and 12 for “corruption on earth.” Shia religious leaders who did not support government policies reportedly continued to face intimidation and arrest. The government continued to harass, interrogate, and arrest Bahais. The government also continued to regulate Christian religious practices closely to enforce the prohibition on proselytizing and conversion. Security officials continued to raid and demolish existing prayer sites belonging to Sunnis; the government reportedly barred the construction of new Sunni mosques. Authorities continued demolition of a Bahai cemetery in Shiraz. There were reports of authorities placing restrictions on Bahai businesses or forcing them to shut down.

According to multiple reports from international media, such as Reuters, and NGOs, including the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI) and Amnesty International, on August 2, one week after airing their confessions on television, the government executed more than 20 Sunni Kurdish prisoners at Rajai Shahr Prison on charges of moharebeh, “being affiliated with Salafi groups”, and “acting against national security.” Those executed included Bahman Rahimi, Mokhtar Rahimi, Yavar Rahimi, Arash Sharifi, Kaveh Veisi, Ahmad Nasiri, Kaveh Sharifi, Behrouz Shahnazari, Talek Malek, and Shahram Ahmadi. Courts had upheld the death sentences even though NGOs reported the charges were based on confessions obtained through torture.

Courts also upheld the 2015 death sentences of Sunni prisoners Mohammad Kayvan Karimi, Amjad Salehi, and Omid Payvand, on charges of “enmity against God through spreading propaganda against the system,” despite NGO reports the convictions were based on confessions obtained through torture.

IHRDC reported the government executed one individual with the initials H.S. on charges of moharebeh in January in Zanjan. Additional information about the case was unavailable.

According to the Iranian Human Rights News Agency, on November 18, Mohammad Eshaqabadi, a member of the Gonabadi community of Sufi dervishes, died several days after he was detained by plainclothes policemen in Tehran.

Residents of provinces with large Sunni populations, including Kurdistan, Khuzestan, and Sistan-Baluchistan, reported continued repression by the judiciary and security services, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrest, and torture in detention, as well as discrimination, including suppression of religious rights, lack of basic government services, and inadequate funding for infrastructure projects. Sunnis reported it was sometimes difficult to distinguish whether the cause of government discrimination against them was religious or ethnic, since most Sunnis were also members of ethnic minority groups.

According to the Iran Prison Atlas data set from United for Iran, there were 31 political prisoners incarcerated on charges of “insulting Islam,” 198 for moharebeh, and 12 for “corruption on earth” and at least 103 members of minority religious groups remained imprisoned for their religious activities. According to the Bahai International Community (BIC), there were 86 Bahai prisoners incarcerated at year’s end. According to Christian World Watch Monitor, there were 82 arrests of Christians (including converts) during the year. According to IHRDC, at least 261 people remained imprisoned at the end of the year for their membership in or activities on behalf of a minority religious group, including at least 115 Sunnis, 80 Bahais, 26 Christian converts, 18 Sufis, and 10 Yarsanis.

Multiple Bahais remained incarcerated, serving sentences on charges including “insulting religious sanctities,” “corruption on earth,” “propaganda against the system,” and actions against national security, or for their involvement with the Bahai Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), a university-level educational institution the government considered illegal. Of seven Bahai leaders serving 20-year terms after 2011 convictions, one, Afif Naeimi, was provisionally released in July for medical reasons due to a heart condition. He remained out of jail at year’s end. Two of the remaining six, Fariba Kamalabadi and Mahvash Sabet received five-day furloughs before returning to prison. Prison authorities denied Abdolfattah Soltani, an attorney who defended teachers at BIHE and was serving a 13-year sentence, family visitation and adequate medical treatment, according to an August 17 report by ICHRI. Amanollah Mostaghim, who had been serving a five-year sentence, was released due to continued medical issues, according to official online Bahai records.

Christians, particularly evangelicals and converts from Islam, continued to experience disproportionate levels of arrests and detention, and high levels of harassment and surveillance, according to reports from exiled Christians. Numerous Christians remained imprisoned at year’s end on charges related to their religious practices. Prison authorities reportedly continued to withhold medical care from prisoners, including some Christians, according to human rights groups. According to human rights NGOs, the government also continued to enforce the prohibition on proselytizing.

Several converts who used wine during communion services were arrested during the year. According to reporting from the NGO Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Christian converts Yasser Mossayebzadeh, Saheb Fadaie, and Mehdi Reza Omidi were arrested on May 13 for drinking communion wine and convicted and sentenced to 80 lashes each in the city of Rasht on September 10. All were appealing their sentences at year’s end.

According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Amin Afshar Naderi, Hadi Asgari, Amir Saman Dashti, Mohammad Dehnavi, and Ramil Bet-Tamraz were arrested on August 26 in a private garden in Firouzkooh for having Bibles. Four of the five were Christian converts. According to Mohabat Christian news site, Naderi was beaten by security forces for resisting arrest. On October 18, Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported that two of the arrested Christians, Ramil Bet-Tamraz and Mohammad Dehnavi, were released on bail. The rest remained in Evin prison. …

The government continued to monitor the statements and views of senior Shia religious leaders. Shia religious leaders who did not support government policies or supreme leader Ali Khamenei’s views reportedly continued to face intimidation, arrest, and imprisonment on charges related to religious offenses.

The supreme leader oversaw the extrajudicial Special Clerical Courts, not provided for by the constitution. The courts, headed by a Shia Islamic legal scholar, operated outside the judiciary’s purview and were charged with investigating offenses committed by clerics, including political statements inconsistent with government policy and nonreligious activities. The courts also issued rulings based on independent interpretation of Islamic legal sources. Critics stated clerical courts were used to control non-Shia Muslim clerics, as well as to prosecute Shia clerics who expressed controversial ideas and participated in activities outside the sphere of religion, such as journalism or reformist political activities. On August 16, Vice President for Legal Affairs Majid Ansari declared cases of individuals and entities who insulted the president would be tried in the Special Clerical Courts.

There continued to be reports of arrests and harassment of Sunni clerics and congregants. ICHRI reported that in August Hassam Amini, a Sunni cleric and Islamic judge, was interrogated for two days by the intelligence ministry for his criticism of the execution of the 20 Sunni Kurdish prisoners in Rajai Shahr Prison and visiting the victim’s families. His interrogators reportedly said Amini “had acted against the state,” that his criticisms “disturbed the public and undermined the judiciary,” and his visit with the families meant he was supporting their positions. The intelligence ministry also interrogated Sunni religious scholar Hashemi Hossein Panahi on August 8 after he criticized the executions.

According to Majzooban-e-Noor, a website reporting on the Gonabadi (Sufi) dervish community, Gonabadi followers Kazem Dehghan and Salahaddin Moradi were charged with being members of an illegal group, a group countering the government and/or its theology, and conspiring to disrupt the country's security. There was no further information on their case.

According to a February 1 report by Majzooban-e-Noor, a special clerical court sentenced seven dervishes of Kavar to internal exile on charges including moharebeh. The court sentenced Kazem Dehghan, Hamid Reza Arayesh, and Mohammad Ali Shamshirzan to permanent internal exile, and sentenced Mohammad Ali Dehghan, Mohammad Ali Sadeghi, Ebrahim Bahrami, and Mohsen Esmaeili to seven years of internal exile.

Security officials continued to raid prayer sites belonging to Sunnis. News media outlet Al Sharq Al Awsat reported 18 parliamentarians had presented a warning to Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli after the closure of a Sunni mosque in Eslamshahr, west of Tehran. Parliament member Mahmoud Sadeghi said the closure of the mosque “contradict the Shia-Sunni unity that is always stressed by the supreme leader.” Sadeghi also said authorities had blocked attendance at other Sunni mosques, including at Tehran Pars Mosque. HRANA reported plainclothes security agents raided a mosque in northwest Tehran and attacked worshippers there on the eve of Eid al-Fitr.

The government continued to require women of all religious groups to adhere to “Islamic dress” standards in public, including covering their hair and fully covering their bodies in loose clothing – a manteau (overcoat) and a rousari (headscarf), or, alternatively, a chador (full body length semicircle of fabric worn over both the head and clothes). Although the government at times eased enforcement of rules for such dress, it also punished “un-Islamic dress” with arrests, lashings, fines, and dismissal from employment. In May according to media reports, 99 students in Qazvin, both men and women, were each given 99 lashes for attending a coed party where the women were, according to authorities, improperly dressed in accordance with Islam.

According to members of the Sabean-Mandaean and Yarsan religious communities, authorities continued their harassment of these communities, including by denying them permission to perform religious ceremonies in public and denying them building permits for places of worship. The government continued to classify Yarsanis as Shia Muslims practicing Sufism, although Yarsanis identified themselves as practitioners of a distinct faith. Yarsanis reported continued discrimination in the military and school systems, where they faced harassment. They also faced discrimination in the birth registration system, which prevented them from giving their children Yarsani names. Without providing details, Yarsanis in exile reported thousands of community members remained missing after arrests by security forces.

The intelligence and security services reportedly continued their harassment of prominent Sufi leaders and raided Sufi businesses as a means of intimidation and information gathering. Government legal restrictions on Sufi groups and their husseiniya (auxiliary prayer and teaching spaces) also continued due to the groups’ differences with the government’s interpretation of Islam.

Iranian media reported there were nine Sunni mosques operating in Tehran and 15,000 across the country. International media and the Sunni community reported no new Sunni mosques were allowed to be built in Tehran to meet demand. Sunnis reported the existing number of mosques in the country did not meet the demands of the local population. Sunnis continued to cite the absence of a Sunni mosque in Tehran, despite the presence of more than one million Sunnis in the city, as an example of government discrimination. Sunni leaders said, because the government barred them from building or worshiping in their own mosques, they relied on ad hoc, underground prayer halls, or namaz khane, to practice their faith.

According to the BIC website, authorities continued demolition of the Bahai cemetery in Shiraz. A cultural and sports recreation center for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps built on the site of the cemetery was reportedly near completion. The BIC reported authorities representing the Ardestan Municipal Council bulldozed the Bahai cemetery in Ardestan on October 27. Although the BIC presented an official petition to the Municipal Council and the office of the Friday prayer leader of Ardestan, authorities did not launch an investigation. Instead, the BIC reported the municipal council put up a banner requiring any burial in the area to have a special permit and stipulating that anyone carrying out a burial without a permit could be prosecuted.

The government continued to hold many Bahai properties it had seized following the 1979 revolution, including cemeteries, holy places, historical sites, and administrative centers. The government also continued to prevent Bahais from burying their dead in accordance with their religious tradition.

According to the BIC, authorities continued to restrict Bahai businesses, making it difficult for Bahais to earn their livelihood. The government continued to raid Bahai homes and businesses and confiscated private and commercial property, as well as religious materials. There were reports of authorities placing restrictions on Bahai businesses or forcing them to shut down when they had temporarily closed in observance of Bahai holidays. On April 20, authorities sealed off 17 Bahai owned shops after the owners closed their businesses for Bahai holy days. The shops included two toy stores, two pharmacies, a tire repair shop, a women’s clothing store, and two optical stores. Authorities also reportedly asked managers of private companies to dismiss Bahai employees, and denied applications from Bahais for new or renewed business and trade licenses.

The Bahai community wrote a public letter to President Hassan Rouhani in September protesting the government’s continuing seizure of Bahai personal property and stating its denial of access to education and employment eroded the Bahai community’s economic base and threatened its survival. There was no public response from the government to the letter.

According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, five Jewish schools and two kindergartens continued to operate in Tehran, but authorities required their principals 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. The government reportedly required Jewish schools to remain open on Saturdays, in violation of Jewish religious law, to conform to the schedule of other schools.

Public and private universities continued to deny Bahais admittance and to expel Bahai students once their religion became known. ICHRI reported the June expulsion of Faraz Karin-Kani Sisan from Ghiyaseddin Jamshid Kashani Institute for Higher Education (GJKI) in Abyek, Alborz Province, although he had already completed two years of study, after administrators found out he was Bahai. Many Bahais reportedly did not try to enroll in state-run universities because of the Bahai Faith’s tenet not to deny one’s faith.

During the year Bahai students reported they were unable to register for university, even if they passed entrance exams, because of error messages in the online registration system. According to HRANA, a Bahai high school graduate in Abadan, Seraj Azadi, was told by university admissions he could not register for university, despite successfully passing entrance exams, because he had “insufficient/incomplete documentation,” a statement reportedly used to deny Bahai students entrance into universities.

International news media, such as the UK newspaper The Independent, quoted Jewish community representatives as saying there continued to be government restrictions and discrimination against Jews, but little interference with Jewish religious practices. According to the government, there were 31 publicly-listed synagogues in Tehran. The Tehran Jewish Committee reported in 2015 there were 13 active synagogues in Tehran.

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

The government officially did not limit voting rights on account of religion, although there were separate election processes for the seats reserved for representatives of the recognized religious minority communities in parliament. The government continued to permit Sunnis, Christians, Zoroastrians, and Jews to serve in parliament but not the Assembly of Experts. 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 Muslims eligible for the presidency.

Government officials continued to employ anti-Semitic rhetoric in official statements and sanction them in media outlets, publications, and books. On January 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s official website posted a video that questioned whether the Holocaust happened and criticized the U.S. and European governments for disapproving of Holocaust denial.

On April 29, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum cited the Iranian government’s partial funding of a Holocaust cartoon contest, which included anti-Semitic cartoons, stating, “The organizations associated with the contest are sponsored or supported by government entities, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Ministry of Islamic Guidance.” There continued to be reports of government officials and government-affiliated religious figures making anti-Semitic statements, including a January video produced by the office of the supreme leader, questioning the facts surrounding the Holocaust. Government-sponsored rallies continued to include chants of “death to Israel” and accused other religious minorities, such as Bahais and Christians, of collusion with Israel. On June 30, Kayhan newspaper, whose management is appointed by the office of the supreme leader, published an article stating the Holocaust was a myth and a figment of Jewish historians’ imaginations.

Official reports and the media continued to characterize Christian house churches as “illegal networks” and “Zionist propaganda institutions.”

The government continued to allow recognized religious minority groups to establish community centers and certain self-financed cultural, social, athletic, and/or charitable associations.

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