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.

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.”

In the UK Parliament, 2020


Brendan O’Hara 15 May; Bob Blackman 6 March; Baroness Whitaker 24th February; Patrick Grady 22 January;

USCIRF report 2020

US State Department International Religious Freedom report 2019


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