U.S. Report on Religious Freedom in Iran

On May 15, the State Department released its annual report on religious freedom. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the Iranian government for the crackdown on protesters. “People across Iran, led by young women, continue peaceful protests demanding their human rights, including freedom of religion, galvanized by the killing of Masa Amini, who was arrested by the so-called morality police because her hijab did not fully cover her hair.” The following is the report’s section on Iran with a link to the full report.

Iran: Executive Summary

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 an official interpretation of sharia. The constitution states citizens shall enjoy human, political, economic, and other rights, “in conformity with Islamic criteria.” The penal code provides for hudud punishments (those mandated by sharia), including amputation, flogging, and stoning. It specifies the death penalty 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 or Islam”). According to the penal code, the application of the death penalty varies depending on the religion of both the perpetrator and the victim. In 2021, parliament amended the penal code to criminalize insulting “divine religions or Islamic schools of thought” and committing “any deviant educational or proselytizing activity that contradicts or interferes with the sacred law of Islam.” Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) said these new provisions put religious minorities at a higher risk of persecution. The law prohibits Muslim citizens from changing or renouncing their religious beliefs. The constitution states Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians (excluding converts from Islam) are the only recognized religious minorities permitted to worship and form religious societies “within the limits of the law.”

According to numerous international human rights NGOs and media reporting, the government convicted and executed dissidents, political reformers, and peaceful protesters on charges of “enmity against God” and spreading anti-Islamic propaganda. Authorities carried out hudud punishments such as amputation of fingers (for theft), flogging, and internal exile. The government denied individuals access to attorneys and obtained false confessions through torture in some cases. It reportedly detained and held members of religious minorities incommunicado. In his July report on human rights in Iran, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran (UNSR) expressed alarm at “the disproportionate number of executions of members of minority communities, in particular the Baluch and Kurdish minorities,” who together accounted for 35 percent of the 251 individuals executed between January and June. The Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran (ABC) reported there were 576 executions in 2022, including 71 in December, an increase from 317 executions in 2021 and 248 in 2020. On November 16, Amnesty International reported that authorities were seeking the death penalty for at least 21 persons, many for “enmity against God.” The Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) stated that during the year, the government arrested 140 individuals, imprisoned 39, issued travel bans against 51, summoned 102, raided the homes of 94, and brought 11 to trial for their religious beliefs. Government officials, including the Supreme Leader, routinely engaged in egregious antisemitic rhetoric and Holocaust denial and distortion.

In September, 22-year-old ethnic Kurd Mahsa Amini, a Sunni, died in the custody of the Gasht-e-Ershad (literally “Guidance Patrol” but more commonly known as “Morality Police”) after being detained for allegedly wearing her hijab improperly and thereby violating the country’s strict Islamic dress code. Her death sparked nationwide protests, particularly in regions home to minority populations, including Amini’s home province of Kurdistan. According to NGOs and media reports, on September 30, security forces killed several dozen Baluch protesters in Zahedan city, Sistan and Baluchistan Province, and injured hundreds more during demonstrations after Friday prayers, sparked by Amini’s death. The demonstrators also demanded accountability for the alleged rape of a 15-year-old girl by a police commander. According to analysis by Human Rights Watch (HRW), police and intelligence agents opened fire on unarmed protestors from rooftops around the open-air Sunni Grand Mosalla prayer complex and the Maki Mosque, the main Sunni mosque in Zahedan and the largest Sunni mosque in the country. At year’s end, the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) reported that government security forces had killed 512 protestors, including 69 children, and arrested or detained 19,204 individuals since the outbreak of demonstrations in September. On December 8, authorities executed Mohsen Shekari for “enmity against God,” the first reported instance of the death penalty being imposed on an individual tied to the nationwide protests.

According to the Baha’i International Community (BIC), Amnesty International, multiple international news organizations, and the United Nations, in July and August, security forces in cities across the country conducted multiple raids of Baha’i homes, confiscated property deemed “illegitimate wealth,” and arrested Baha’is in their homes or workplaces on unsubstantiated charges including “causing intellectual and ideological insecurity in Muslim society.” In October, the organization Baha’is of the United States stated that more than 1,000 Baha’is were being held within the criminal justice system. In August, a group of UN human rights experts released a joint statement calling on the government to stop the increasing arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances of members of the Baha’i Faith and the destruction or confiscation of their properties in what the experts said “bears all the signs of a policy of systematic persecution.”

Officials continued to disproportionately arrest, detain, harass, and surveil Christians, particularly evangelicals and other converts from Islam, according to Christian NGOs. Authorities also forcibly disappeared Christian converts, whom it accused of “Zionism” and proselytizing. On November 24, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution calling on the government to “uphold all human rights, including the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, peaceful assembly, association and religion or belief.” According to the database of the NGO United for Iran, Iran Prison Atlas, at least 75 individuals remained imprisoned for religious practice. Of the prisoners listed in the database, many were sentenced on charges of “enmity against God,” or “insulting Islamic sanctities.” Those imprisoned included Baha’is, Christians, including Christian converts, Gonabadi Dervishes, Sunnis, and some Shia. Human rights NGOs reported poor prison conditions and mistreatment of religious minority prisoners, including beatings, degradation specifically targeting their religious beliefs, and denial of medical treatment. In July, according to several NGOs, at least 22 Sunni prisoners in Karaj city went on a hunger strike to protest the refusal of Tehran prosecutor Ali Salehi to address poor prison conditions, to which Salehi responded, “Sunni citizens do not even have the right to live in Iran.”

In August, IranWire reported that the government published a 119-page document, Hijab and Chastity Project, detailing the government’s hijab policy and calling for stronger measures of strict enforcement. Sunni Muslims said the government did not permit them to build prayer facilities sufficient to accommodate their numbers, and government restrictions forced many Christian converts and members of unrecognized religious minority groups, such as Baha’is and Yarsanis, to assemble in private homes to practice their faith in secret. The Jewish community in Tehran warned people via the messaging app Telegram to not visit synagogues during the High Holy Days “due to the dangerous situation.”

Authorities reportedly continued to deny members of unrecognized religious minority groups access to education and government employment unless they declared themselves as belonging to one of the country’s recognized religions on their application forms. UN experts reported universities rejected more than 90 Baha’i students between January and August. The NGO Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se) reported, “The curriculum remains rife with antisemitic rhetoric” and textbooks also contained anti-Sunni material. Government officials and government-affiliated organizations continued to disseminate anti-Baha’i and antisemitic messages using traditional and social media. On December 15, the UN General Assembly approved a resolution expressing concern regarding “ongoing severe limitations and increasing restrictions on the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, restrictions on the establishment of places of worship, undue restrictions on burials carried out in accordance with religious tenets, attacks against places of worship and burial, and other human rights violations, including but not limited to the increased harassment, intimidation, persecution, arbitrary arrests and detention of, and incitement to hatred that leads to violence against, persons belonging to recognized and unrecognized religious minorities.”

On November 7, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security stated it had arrested 26 individuals in connection with an attack on a Shia shrine in Shiraz city, in Fars Province, for which ISIS claimed responsibility. On August 15, Radio Farda reported, “In a sign of … rising anger [against the clerical regime], physical attacks against clerics appear to be increasing,” and that, as a result, some religious officials did not wear their robes or turbans in public to avoid being targeted, while others warned about public anger and the decline in the stature and influence of the Shia clergy. The press and NGOs reported several attacks on Shia clerics during the year. According to multiple sources, non-Shia Muslims and those affiliated with a religion other than Islam, especially members of the Baha’i community, continued to face discrimination in employment and other societal discrimination and harassment. Prominent Sunni cleric Molavi Abdolhamid Izmaee lzahi criticized the government in a number of Friday sermons and called on it to release those arrested during antiregime protests, to respect the rights of all religious minorities, and to stop accusing members of the Baha’i Faith of apostasy. According to human rights NGOs, converts from Islam to Christianity faced ongoing societal pressure and rejection by community members. Sunni students reported professors continued to routinely insult Sunni religious figures in class. Baha’is reported continued destruction and vandalism of their cemeteries.

The United States does not have diplomatic relations with Iran. During the year, the U.S. government used public statements, sanctions, and diplomatic initiatives in international forums to condemn and promote accountability for the government’s abuses against and restrictions on worship by members of religious minorities. The President and other senior U.S. government officials expressed support for peaceful protesters in the wake of Mahsa Amini’s death; they used social media to affirm the rights of the country’s religious minorities and condemn officials for antisemitic statements.

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 November 30, 2022, the Secretary of State redesignated Iran as a CPC. The following sanction was identified in connection with the designation: visa restrictions pursuant to section 221(c) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 (TRA) for certain senior officials of the Government of Iran identified under section 221(a)(1)(C) of the TRA in connection with the commission of serious human rights abuses against citizens of Iran or their family members.

Click here for the complete section on Iran. 

Click here for the full report.