Iran: report highlights targeting of Baha’is and Christians

Last month the UN Human Rights Council received the report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is the section on Ethnic and Religious Minority Rights:

57. The Special Rapporteur expresses serious concern at the continuing systematic discrimination, harassment, and targeting that adherents of the Baha’i faith continue to face in the country. In January 2016, a revolutionary court in Golestan province reportedly sentenced 24 Baha’is to a total of 193 years in prison in connection with the peaceful exercise of their faith. On the morning of 15 November 2015, Intelligence Ministry agents reportedly arrested 20 Baha’is in Tehran, Isfahan and Mashhad. Authorities failed to provide information about the charges against these individuals, and their families were not informed of their whereabouts for several days. At least 80 Baha’is were reportedly detained as of 31 December 2015 in connection with the peaceful exercise of their faith. In its response, the Government asserts that “followers of the Bahai cult enjoy citizen rights” pursuant to the country’s laws and that allegations presented to the contrary in the report were “baseless.”

58. In addition to arbitrary arrests, detentions and prosecutions of Baha’is, the Special Rapporteur continues to receive troubling reports that Iranian authorities continue to pursue activities that economically deprive Baha’i’s of their right to work, reportedly in line with a 1991 directive issued by the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution. These policies include restrictions on types of businesses and jobs Baha’i citizens can have, closing down Baha’i-owned businesses, pressure on business owners to dismiss Baha’i employees, and seizures of businesses and property. On 15 November 2015, the Bureau of Public Places in the province of Mazandaran shut down 23 businesses belonging to Baha’is, including in the cities of Sari, Ghaem Shahr, Tonekabon and Babolsar. Actions to close Bahai-owned businesses appeared to follow their voluntary closure by owners in observance of their religious holiday the day before. In its response, the Government alleges that Bahais in Iran live under “normal” conditions despite “the history of their formation cooperation [sic] with the Shah[‘]s regime and their involvement in the suppression of people and their role in the management of the dreaded intelligence service SAVAK.” The Government also asserts that the shutdown of several Bahai-owned businesses in Mazandaran province was related to “administrative issues.”

59. Discrimination against the Baha’i community in Iran is legally sanctioned by a lack of constitutional recognition of the faith and the absence of legal protections for its adherents. This situation is further perpetuated by open attacks on the community by state officials or individuals close to the state. On 16 October 2015, for example, the Deputy of the Parliament’s National Security Commission, Mr. Haghigharpour, called the Baha’i faith a wayward sect created by Britain, and compared Baha’is to Wahabbis whom he said sought to increase tensions between Shias and Sunnis in the region. In its response, the Government notes that “[g]iven the history of century-old cooperation between the Bahai sect and the Shah[’]s regime and SAVAK, historical facts could not be overlooked as nobody can stop criticizing Nazism in Germany.”

60. The Special Rapporteur also expresses his concern at the treatment of Iranian Christians from Muslim backgrounds, who continue to face arbitrary arrest, harassment and detention despite the fact that article 12 of the Iranian constitution recognises and protects adherents of the Christian faith. The Special Rapporteur notes that many of these individuals are often accused of acting against the national security or “propaganda against the state,” and that under Iranian law, individuals, including Christians of Muslim backgrounds, can be prosecuted for the crime of apostasy. Dozens were reportedly detained in Iranian prisons as of January 2016, many for involvement in informal house churches. The Special Rapporteur received reports in December 2015 that an allegedly Shia “religious group” in the capital Tehran had confiscated land belonging to an Assyrian Chaldean church. In an interview with Shargh newspaper, the head of the church also complained of broader legal discrimination against Iran’s religious minorities, including in the country’s civil code. In its response, the Government notes that the operation of house churches is unlawful because they have not acquired the necessary permits from the authorities, that the establishment of house churches is “unnecessary” because there are more than “20 active, half-active and historical churches” in Iran, and Christians have not “requested permission to build new churches” in the country. The Government also characterized the situation regarding the Assyrian Chaldean church as “a dispute between two Iranian citizens.”

61. In a positive development, news outlets reported in September 2015 that President Rouhani appointed a Sunni Kurd, Dr. Saleh Adibi, as Ambassador to Vietnam and Cambodia. Mr. Adibi is believed to be the first Iranian Sunni to be appointed as permanent representative since the founding of the Islamic Republic. Iran’s Sunnis, which constitute the largest religious minority in the country, have long complained that Iranian authorities do not appoint or employ them in high ranking government positions such as cabinet-level ministers or governors. They have also raised concerns regarding reported restrictions on the construction of Sunni mosques in Shia-majority areas, including the capital Tehran, and the execution or imminent execution of Sunni activists the government alleges were involved in terrorist-related activities. In its response, the Government notes there are more than 10,000 mosques and 3,000 religious schools for Sunnis in the country, that there is no need to build prayer halls for Sunnis in Tehran, and that pursuing policies that encourage Sunnis to have their own mosques or prayer halls is equivalent to “sow[s] the seeds of discord among Muslims.” The Government also refutes the characterization that several Sunnis who have been executed or on death row are peaceful activists, and alleges they engaged in “violent acts and terror.”