Total population 84 million. Muslims are estimated to constitute 99.4 per cent of the population, of which 90-95 per cent are Shi’a, and 5-10 percent are Sunni. Unofficial reports estimate several million practice Sufism. Groups constituting the remaining less than 1 per cent include Bahá’ís (300,000), Christians (possibly up to one million ), Jews, Sabean-Mandaeans, Zoroastrians, and Yarsanis. The three largest non-Muslim minorities are Bahá’ís, Christians, and Yarsanis. It is impossible to identify the size of the non-religious population.
APPG Commentary on the current state of Freedom of Religion or Belief 2020
The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and specifies Twelver Ja’afari Shi’a 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 penal code specifies the death sentence for proselytizing and attempts by non-Muslims to convert Muslims; the law prohibits Muslim citizens from changing or renouncing their religious beliefs.
In the reporting period for this document, November 2019 – 2020, pressure on Christian pastors remains in effect. In August 2020 Pastor Mohammadreza Omidi was released from prison, after serving four years imprisonment alongside three other Christian clergy. In September Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported that Pastor Omidi has been order to spend a further 2 years in internal exile. Four Iranian Christian converts who were arrested in February were sent to prison after they were unable to afford bail. One feature of 2020 was a significant increase in bail demands.
Across the period concurrent with the global health pandemic, the Bahá’í International Community (BIC) has reported a spike in arrest, interrogations and detentions of Iranian Bahá’ís. In June 2020 the BIC reported the targeting of at least 77 Bahá’ís in multiple locations for either arrest, summons to court, sentencing or imprisonment in jail.
Iran’s longstanding policy to deny Bahá’ís access to education, as codified in a 1991 policy memorandum of the Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council, continued. In July 2020 the Centre for Human Rights in Iran reported the case of 15-year-old Adib Vai, a Bahá’í child who was expelled from a school in Karaj solely on account of his religious faith.
This reporting period has also seen an escalation in a previous trend of use of Tazir laws. In December 2019 a Bahá’í Mazandaran was sentenced to 11 years imprisonment under Tazir provisions, significantly longer than tariffs of 1 or 2 years seen previously.
In August 2020 the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) published a factsheet on Iranian officials sanctioned for violating religious freedom with details of six senior figures, including Mohammed Golpayegani, who issued the 1991 secret memorandum on “the Bahá’í Question”.
USCIRF noted that in March “…several Sufis were convicted on spurious national security charges and sentenced to prison, lashings and internal exile.” This same report also notes that in February three Torah scrolls were stolen from a Synagogue in Tehran but police did not investigate.
For atheists and secularists, the expression of non-religious views has been severely persecuted in Iran and is rendered practically impossible due to severe social stigma. It is also likely to be met with hatred or violence. In Iran it is illegal to declare oneself to be an atheist or non-religious.
In February 2017, Professor Ahmadreza Djalali, who worked for the Free University in Brussels, was arrested and threatened with the death sentence by Iranian security forces, who accused him of “collaborating with scientists from hostile nations” and “enmity against God”. Since his arrest his physical and mental condition has worsened and reports in November 2020 suggest his execution is imminent.
Reports indicate that the period of the COVID-19 crisis has witnessed a ratcheting up of the substantive and wide-ranging denial of freedom of religion or belief to members of recognised and non-recognised religious communities as well as secular or atheist Iranians.
FCDO Human Rights Report 2020
The Iranian authorities continued to violate the right to freedom of religion or belief. Members of religious minorities faced restrictions for peacefully practising their beliefs. Baha’is were denied access to mainstream education and national identification cards, while the number of mass arrests and home raids increased. In November, the parliament passed amendments to the Penal Code, covering anyone who ‘insulted’ legally recognised religions. Several NGOs feared that, if approved, this could mean further targeting of those following their religion[footnote 97].
While Christians notionally benefitted from constitutional recognition and protection, they continued to be persecuted, especially converts. At least two individuals were flogged in 2020 for drinking communion wine[footnote 98], and four others were given a total of 35 years in prison for forming a house-church, despite Iran’s international obligation under the ICCPR to recognise an individual’s freedom to choose and practise their religion. At the UN Human Rights Council on 25 September, the UK co-signed a joint statement with 46 other states which set out our deep concern about such persistent human rights violations in Iran, and called for perpetrators to be held accountable.
APPG Commentary on the current state of Freedom of Religion or Belief 2019
Iran’s human rights and freedom of religious belief record has been a matter of concern for many years and continues to be so today. 2019 is a significant year for Iran in terms of human rights as it will undergo its third round of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the Human Rights Council.
Over 99% of Iran’s population are Muslim (c.90% Shia, c.9% Sunni) with the remaining (<1%) comprising of Christians, Baha’i, Jews, Zoroastrians, Sufi-Dervishes, Mandaeans and others. The Iranian Constitution declares Twelver Ja’fari Shi’ism the official religion. It also declares Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians as the ‘only recognised religious minorities’, thereby condemning other minority groups as ‘non-citizens’. The ‘Revolutionary Courts’ established post-1979 to try so-called ‘political crimes’ have the power to try individuals, including ‘apostates’, on vague charges of being ‘un-Islamic’ and threatening ‘national security’. Article 260 of the Penal Code codifies the death penalty for blasphemy, which includes ‘insulting the Prophet’, ‘other Prophets’ or “the sacred values of Islam.”
Scheherzade Faramarzi, in a brief for the Atlantic Council, estimates the Sunni population of Iran as high as 15 million people. The 2019 Annual Report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) notes that the Sunni population “…is concentrated in underdeveloped areas and experiences discrimination in employment.” The report asserts that in 2018, repeated requests by Tehran’s Sunni Muslim community to build an official mosque have been refused, and they only possess the facilities for “prayer houses” which do not have an Imam.
More serious abuses have been reported, notably the assassination of a Sunni cleric in South-Eastern Iran in July 2018, and another Sunni cleric who was shot four times in November on his way home from his mosque. On December 2018, 38 representatives of the Islamic Consultative Assembly proposed two supplementary articles to the Islamic Penal Code to criminalise “sects” and “made up religions”.
There are concerns that if such proposals were made law, these could further marginalise some elements of the Sunni community as well as members of the Bahá’í Faith. Sufi Muslims also face harassment. Nematollah Riahi, a leader of a Gonabadi Dervish order, was detained, leading to clashes in Tehran in February 2018.
Iranian citizens expressing non-religious views have faced persecution and even severe punishment where their written or spoken views are perceived to insult Islam. Whilst Iran may lack a formal organisation or community for secular, humanist and atheists, the International Humanist and Ethical Union have made a number of statements in defence of Iranian academics and free thinkers who face repression. One example of this that may characterise broader problems for free expression in Iran is the Humanist International press release in support of Iranian academic Ahmadreza Djalali, who was sentenced to death in October 2017 for “acting against national security.”
Estimates of the number of Christians in Iran vary, but the 2018 USCIRF report suggests there are “nearly 300,000.” It is helpful to note that Iran’s Christians comprise historic Armenian, Chaldean and Assyrian communities but also “newer Protestant and evangelical churches.”
On 1 July 2019, Article18 reported on the arrest of eight converts to Christianity in the southwestern city of Bushehr. The arresting officers introduced themselves as agents from the Ministry of Intelligence. They stormed the Christians’ homes in a coordinated operation at around 9am, confiscating Bibles, Christian literature, wooden crosses and pictures carrying Christian symbols, along with laptops, phones, all forms of identity cards, bank cards and other personal belongings.
The FCO notes the continuing persecution of the Bahá’í community, highlighting the economic pressures on them that are exerted by policies of shop closures and denial of access to higher education. Sources from the Bahá’í International Community report that the Revolutionary Courts are making greater use of Tazir laws that enable judges to sentence Bahá’ís to entirely arbitrary punishments. In September 2018, five Bahá’ís were sentenced to one year’s imprisonment and one year of exile to remote regions for “propaganda against the regime in support of the enemies” by the Branch 1 court in Shiraz.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom notes that despite his promise to end religious discrimination in 2013, President Rouhani’s term of office to date has seen “…an estimated 26,000 pieces of anti-Baha’i media run on official or semi-official channels. Over the past 10 years, more than 1,000 Baha’is have been arbitrarily arrested.”
FCO Human Rights Report 2019
The Iranian authorities continued to violate the right to freedom of religion or belief and discriminated against ethnic minorities. Members of religious minorities faced restrictions for peacefully manifesting their beliefs.
The authorities continued to persecute Baha’is, including through shop closures and the denial of mainstream education. More than 30 followers were reportedly arrested during 2019, often on unclear charges.
While Christians notionally benefit from constitutional recognition and protection, they continued to be persecuted in a systemic and institutionalised manner. In September, the Iranian authorities sentenced a pastor and eight converts to Christianity to five years in prison, despite Iran’s international obligation under the ICCPR to recognise an individual’s freedom to choose their religion.
In the UK Parliament, 2021
EARLY DAY MOTIONS
1487 Baha’i land in Iran Lloyd Russell-Moyle
In the UK Parliament, 2020
Brendan O’Hara 15 May; Bob Blackman 6 March; Baroness Whitaker 24th February; Patrick Grady 22 January;
US State Department International Religious Freedom report 2020