Death and life under religious apartheid

Death and life under religious apartheid

Members of Armenian and Assyrian families are hailed as war heroes by the Iranian regime for serving alongside their compatriots in the eight-year war with Iraq, but, as non-Muslims, they are also banned from employment in the army.

By Fred Petrossian

The killing of an Assyrian Christian citizen by the Islamic Republic’s security forces in Fardis, Karaj, came as another bitter and shocking piece of news in a series of horrifying reports of hundreds of Iranians being killed and wounded as a sharp rise in fuel prices sparked protests and outrage across the country.

The news of Ashoor Kalta’s loss of life becomes even more distressing when one considers that during his life the 37-year-old, like other members of religious-minority communities, had been forced to live as a second- or even third-degree citizen under Islamic rule, deprived of many of his basic rights. 

It was a deprivation that continued until his death, and millions of Iranians continue to live such a life.

The persecution of non recognised religious minorities – “non recognised” means “invisible”, with no rights under the Islamic Republic – such as Baha’is and Christian converts since the early days of the Islamic Revolution in 1979 has been so catastrophic that little is said about the violations of the rights of the recognised religious minorities: Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians (Armenians and Assyrians).

‘Brothers’ at war, ‘infidels’ at peace

The period around Christmas and New Year is one of “show time” in the Islamic Republic, when the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and some of the regime’s other leading figures visit Assyrian and Armenian families who lost children during the eight-year war with Iraq.

The irony is that while Khamenei praises the sacrifices of these families’ children at war as heroes who defended country, the Islamic Republic bans non-Muslim Iranians from employment in the army. In other words, non-Muslim Iranians who have risked their lives alongside other compatriots to defend their homeland are not permitted a job within the army because their religion is not Islam.

However, according to Article 28 of the Constitution, “Everyone has the right to choose any occupation he wishes, provided it does not infringe on the rights of others and is not contrary to Islam and public interests. It is the government’s duty to provide all citizens with employment opportunity, and to create equal conditions for obtaining employment, with consideration of society’s need for different professions.”

But the reality is that many government agencies do not employ persons belonging to religious minorities.

And by depriving non-Muslim Iranians of employment in many public institutions, the Islamic state imposes poverty and economic hardship upon them, condemning many to unemployment. 

It also marginalises members of religious minorities from the places where decisions are made.

Behnaz Hosseini, a Europe-based researcher on immigration and religious minorities, tells Article18 “the Islamic Republic is not ready to accept a member of a religious minority at higher social and political levels”.

Besides discrimination in employment, a number of legal provisions contained in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, its Penal Code and its Civil Code discriminate against all non-Muslim. 

For example, in Iran’s religious apartheid, non-Muslim citizens, hailed as “brothers” during war, are called “infidels” at the time of the division of inheritance.

According to Article 881 of the Civil Code, a non-Muslim [kafir in the Persian text, which means “unbeliever”] is not allowed to inherit property from a Muslim. 

The same Article states that if one of the beneficiaries of a non-Muslim is Muslim, this individual (regardless of that person’s degree of relationship with the deceased) will collect the entire inheritance to the detriment of all other non-Muslim members of the family. 

Even the value of the blood of minorities in Iran’s religious apartheid seems to be lower, with the Islamic Penal Code differentiating between the punishments [qisas] for murderers, depending on whether or not the victim is a Muslim.

The issue of the non-equality of “blood money” as compensation for Muslims and non-Muslims was changed in the early 2000s by the Iranian Parliament (Majlis), despite opposition from the Guardian Council, with the approval of the Expediency Council.

Another legal distinction and discrimination against non-Muslim citizens in Iran is that the testimony in court of a non-Muslim against a Muslim is not accepted.


According to Article 13 of the Constitution, “Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian Iranians are the only religious minorities, who, within the limits of the law, are free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies, and to act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education”, and have representatives in the parliament.

Yet the fact is that the activities of even the recognised religious-minority communities are severely restricted, controlled strictly by intelligence and security forces, and these people must be obedient or face the consequences. For example, an Armenian or Assyrian can face prison for giving a Bible to his or her Muslim friends, or inviting them to a prayer service.

“All institutions and activities of religious minorities are under control, such as the Zoroastrians not being allowed to conduct Avesta-learning classes for the public, and only strictly controlled ceremonies are held,” says Behnaz Hosseini. She adds: “In the case of the Yarsan, often an agent from the Ministry of Intelligence is present in their Jam ceremony. And churches are forbidden to let converts be present.”

A leading Paris-based human rights organisation once described the roots of minorities’ discrimination as follows: “The peculiarity of the Islamic Republic of Iran is not the mere fact that Islam is the religion of the State (other States share the same feature) but rather the fact that the State itself is conceived as an institution and instrument of the divine will.”

Under religious apartheid in Iran, religious minorities have no option but submission to this “divine will” manifested through the regime’s ruling institutions.

As part of his speech addressed to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani a few months ago, the Assyrian representative to the parliament, Yonathan Betkolia, said: “We want you to order non-religious institutions not to intervene in the affairs of these communities. The ministries of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Interior and Intelligence should be the only institutions that communicate directly with relatives. Some interference [from other institutions] causes anxiety.”

It is as if the institutions of the Islamic Republic are competing for control and expropriation of religious minorities.

According to Article 19 of the Constitution, “All people of Iran, whatever the ethnic group or tribe to which they belong, enjoy equal rights; and colour, race, language, and the like, do not bestow any privilege.”

But this is not the case for the million of Iranians belonging to religious-minority communities – whether recognised or not. It seems that they do not belong to the “all people” mentioned in this Article.

The silence and gradual death of religious minorities

Members of recognised religious minorities in Iran are fleeing the Islamic Republic’s apartheid.

The population of Zoroastrian, Jewish and Christian citizens has fallen by a third, while Iran’s population has more than doubled in the past four decades since the revolution.

Many members of the religious-minority community prefer to remain silent, and little is known about their situation.

Behnaz Hosseini says they are marginalised as a result of their fear, and silent because they have been the most oppressed.

And if the recognised minorities face such a deplorable situation, the hardships of unrecognised minorities can be imagined – from Baha’is, to Christian converts and Yarsans.

From the outset, children from these unrecognised groups feel discrimination, and the pain of being different from the rest.

The Minister of Education recently announced: “If pupils declare they are followers of other religions than the official religion of our country, this should be considered propaganda and they should be banned from school.”  

In other words, from the outset Iran’s religious-apartheid government seeks to institutionalise fear-based obedience in the children of unrecognised religious minorities.

The Islamic government has not only executed, imprisoned and stolen the businesses of Baha’is in these past four decades; it has also deprived their youth of education. 

Children of Christian converts are also trapped in educational limbo. Prisoner of conscience and activist Yousef Nadarkhani, and members of his church, have worked for years to defend the rights of their children to be educated as Christians. Yousef recently went on a hunger strike in prison after failing to ensure his children were not forced to undergo an Islamic education.

However, according to Article 18 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a binding covenant to which Iran is a signatory, “The State Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.” 

International organisations and institutions including the United Nations have repeatedly condemned Iran’s violations of human rights, including the rights of minorities, and reminded Iran of its obligations as a signatory to the ICCPR and also the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Amnesty International in a recent report emphasised that in Iran, “Freedom of religion and belief continues to be systematically violated.” The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Javaid Rehman, has consistently raised concerns in past reports regarding the human rights situation of minorities in Iran.

Breaking the silence by launching an active campaign for the rights of all religious minorities in Iran is not an option but a necessity, on behalf of the millions of Iranians who are denied their basic rights because of their religion.

As Martin Luther King said, there comes a time when silence is betrayal.