Iran’s government continued to imprison, harass, intimidate, and discriminate against people based on religious beliefs in 2017, according to an annual State Department report on religious freedom. Some 90 percent of Iran’s population is Shiite. Religious minorities, such as Sunni Muslims and Sufis, as well as Bahai’s, Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians, faced the brunt of government and societal discrimination. The government also reportedly executed dissidents, political reformers and peaceful protestors for "moharebeh" (or “enmity against God”). Four men were reportedly executed on December 20 at Rajai Shahr Prison for moharebeh, and four others were put to death for waging “war on God” in Kerman province on September 17. “We hear and see horrific reports coming out of Iran on the lack of religious freedom and the persecution of people that aren’t in the majority faith stream and practicing as the government directs, and we see a radical export of that philosophy as well out of Iran,” Ambassador Sam Brownback told reporters 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. The following are excerpts from the report.
International Religious Freedom Report for 2017
The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic, and specifies Twelver 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”). According to the penal code, the application of the death penalty varies depending on the religion of both the perpetrator and the victim. The law prohibits Muslim citizens from changing or renouncing their religious beliefs. The constitution also stipulates five non-Ja’afari Islamic schools shall be “accorded full respect” and official status in matters of religious education and certain personal affairs. 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 “within the limits of the law.” The government continued to execute individuals on charges of moharebeh, including four prisoners at Rajai Shahr Prison in December 20, and four men charged with waging “war on God” in Kerman Province in September. A court sentenced Mohammad Ali Taheri, founder of the spiritual movement Erfan-e Halgheh, to death for a second time on August 27 for “spreading corruption on earth;” he remained imprisoned in solitary confinement since 2011, while authorities continued to harass, arrest, and condemn dozens of his followers for their beliefs. The Supreme Court rejected Taheri’s death sentence in December and ordered him retried. Human rights organizations reported in April the self-immolation of two brothers belonging to the Yarsani faith in Kermanshah, which they attributed to the government’s ongoing discrimination against the Yarsani community. The UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran highlighted in her March and August reports the large number of executions of the largely Sunni Kurdish prisoners on moharebehcharges. The Iran Prison Atlas, compiled by the U.S.-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) United for Iran, stated at least 102 members of minority religious groups remained imprisoned for their religious activities, 174 individuals on charges of moharebeh, 23 on charges of “insulting Islam” and 21 for “corruption on earth.” Shia religious leaders who did not support government policies reportedly continued to face intimidation and arrest by authorities. The government continued to harass, interrogate, and arrest Bahais, Christians (particularly converts), Sunni Muslims, and other religious minorities and regulated Christian religious practices closely to enforce a prohibition on proselytizing. There continued to be reports of arrests and harassment of Sunni clerics and congregants. According to a Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) report, the Council of Sunni Theologians of Iran (CSTI), representing Sunni clerics based in the northwestern Kurdish-populated provinces, suspended its operations on July 13 in response to ongoing intimidation reportedly perpetrated by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS). The Special Court for the Clergy in Hamadan tried the cleric Hassan Amini, CSTI’s secretary general, on June 29, on charges of “propaganda against the state.” Mohabat News, a Christian news website, citing local media reports, reported in October that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) arrested several Christians in Tehran, Rey, and Pardis, who were expected to face long jail terms after a video was released in July showing dozens of Bibles, textbooks, theological notes, and CDs. 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, and the government closed Sufi websites, such as the Gonabadi Sufi Order’s websites, in an attempt to erase their online identity. Yarsanis reported they continued to face discrimination and harassment by authorities. The government 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 underground Sunni prayer sites, or namaz khane, and prevent the construction of new ones. The government continued to use anti-Semitic and anti-Bahai rhetoric in official statements. There were continued reports of authorities placing restrictions on Bahai businesses or forcing them to shut down. In November authorities sentenced three Bahai students who had been barred from university and who had complained to state officials, to five years in prison for “membership in the anti-state Bahai cult” and “publishing falsehoods.” According to media reports, in June authorities released two men who stabbed a Bahai man to death in September 2016 after they confessed they killed him because of his faith. According to the special rapporteur’s August 14 report, “[a]dherents of recognized religions … continue to face severe restrictions and discrimination, and are reportedly prosecuted for peacefully manifesting their religious beliefs.”
According to multiple sources, non-Shia Muslims and those affiliated with a religion other than Islam, especially members of 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. Bahais reported there were continued incidents of destruction or vandalism of their cemeteries.
The U.S. 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 August the Secretary of State called attention to the fact that members of the Bahai community were in prison simply for abiding by their beliefs, and denounced the continued sentencing to death of individuals on vague apostasy laws. In September a State Department spokesperson condemned the second death sentence of Mohammad Ali Taheri, along with the ongoing arbitrary arrests of several of Taheri’s followers. In May a State Department spokesperson condemned the unjust imprisonment of the seven Bahai leaders jailed since 2008 for exercising their freedoms of religion, association, and expression. The U.S. supported the rights of religious minority groups in the country through actions in the UN, including votes to extend the mandate of the special rapporteur. The U.S. also supported 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 December 22, the Secretary of State redesignated Iran as a CPC. The following sanction 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
Summary paragraph: The government convicted and executed dissidents, political reformers, and peaceful protesters on charges of moharebeh and anti-Islamic propaganda. The Revolutionary Court of Tehran sentenced Mohammad Ali Taheri, founder of the spiritual doctrine of “Interuniversalism” and the Erfan-e Halgheh group, to death for a second time on August 27. The Supreme Court rejected Taheri’s death sentence in December and ordered him retried. On March 12, a court sentenced Marjan Davari, a translator, researcher, and writer, to death on charges of blasphemy. Human rights organizations reported in April the self-immolation of two Yarsani brothers in Kermanshah, which they attributed to the government’s ongoing discrimination against the Yarsani community. The head of the country’s judiciary reportedly ordered Sunni prisoners convicted of drug smuggling to be executed as soon as possible so that they would not be subject to a parliament bill proposing the elimination of the death penalty for certain prisoners. Residents of provinces with large Sunni populations reported continued government repression, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrest, and torture in detention, as well as discrimination, suppression of religious rights, and denial of basic government services. CHRI reported that authorities released Christian convert Maryam (Nasim) Naghash Zargaran from Evin Prison on August 1, after serving more than four years for engaging in Christian missionary activities. Zargaran told CHRI that prison authorities forced her and some female prisoners to take unnecessary antipsychotic medications while in prison. On August 13, security and plainclothes agents arrested and reportedly beat Sunni Arabs for publicly praying in Ahvaz, Khuzestan Province. Baluchi journalists and human rights activists, largely Sunni, continued to face arbitrary arrest, physical abuse, and unfair trials. The government pressured families of imprisoned Baluchis to remain silent and threatened them with retaliation for speaking out about cases. Shia religious leaders who did not support government policies reportedly continued to face government intimidation and arrest. Authorities 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, and reportedly barred the construction of new Sunni mosques. In February courts sentenced four Sunni individuals to five years in prison each for jogging, with authorities claiming that it was part of organized activities against national security.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Bahais, and those who advocated for their rights, reported that Bahais continued to be major targets of social stigma and violence, and that perpetrators continued to act with impunity or, even when arrested faced, diminished punishment following admissions that their acts were based on the religious identity of the victim.
According to CSW and others, converts from Islam to Christianity faced ongoing societal pressure and rejection by family or community members. Christian World Watch Monitor and CSW reported in September that Christian children in Rasht and Shiraz, all members of the Church of Iran, were told to either study Shia Islam or leave school.
According to reports from CHRI, HRANA and Iranwire, unidentified assailants vandalized two synagogues in Shiraz on December 24-25. Prayer books were reportedly thrown into toilets and Torah scrolls ripped up. Valuable religious items such as silver candleholders were reportedly stolen.
Shia clerics and prayer leaders reportedly continued to denounce Sufism and the activities of Sufis in both sermons and public statements.
Sunni students reported professors routinely continued to insult Sunni religious figures in class.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The U.S. has no diplomatic relations with the country, and therefore did not have regular opportunities to raise concerns directly with the government over its religious freedom abuses and restrictions.
The U.S. government continued to call for the government to respect religious freedom and continued to condemn its abuses of religious minorities in a variety of ways and in different international forums. This included public statements by senior U.S. government officials and reports issued by U.S. government agencies, support for relevant UN and NGO efforts, diplomatic initiatives, and sanctions. Senior U.S. government officials publicly reiterated calls for the release of prisoners held on grounds related to their religious beliefs.
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