Analysis

Iran’s religious minority representatives: surrender to survive

Iran’s religious minority representatives: surrender to survive

By Fred Petrossian

“Religious minorities in the Islamic Republic have no restrictions; they enjoy full freedom and all economic and social rights, and those who say otherwise are false claimants of ‘human rights’ who distort the facts.”

These recent remarks by Ara Shahverdian, one of two Armenian Christian representatives in the Iranian parliament, are just the latest in a long line of similar claims by religious-minority representatives, echoing those of the Iranian regime by denying human-rights violations and even the existence of prisoners of conscience.

Armenians and Assyrian Christians, alongside Jews and Zoroastrians, are the only “recognised” minorities in Iran’s Constitution, and together share five MPs in the Iranian parliament, or Majlis. 

Other religious minorities, such as Baha’is, Yarsanis and Christian converts, are not recognised by the Islamic Republic and are deprived of basic rights.

But, as Article18 has highlighted previously, even the “recognised” minorities are victims of an apartheid along religious lines.

Why, then, have they also become propagandists of the Islamic Republic, denying cold, hard facts, such as the presence of Christian converts in Iran and persecution of the religious minorities they represent? 

Institutionalised harassment

Persecution of religious minorities began from the very first days of the victory of the Islamic Revolution, from the assassination of Rev. Arastoo Sayyah in Shiraz, to the execution of Habibollah Elghanian – then president of the Tehran Jewish Society – and widespread repression of Baha’is.

Harassment of minorities has not only failed to diminish in the past four decades, despite the promises of the founding father of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini; it has become institutionalised in the very fabric of the Islamic Republic, with laws that violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and that are even in conflict with the Iranian Constitution itself.

The persecution of unrecognised minorities such as Baha’is and Christian converts is so severe that there is less talk about violations of the rights of the minorities “recognised” in the Constitution.

But in the Islamic Republic, even Muslims, such as Sunnis and Dervishes, are the victims of discriminatory laws. 

Iranian-Canadian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo told Article18: “Of course, from the point of view of a man of common sense, discrimination of the ‘other’ is something that is never justified, whatever the reason. But in the case of the Islamic Republic of Iran, scapegoating minorities is a way not to confront the ‘otherness’ of the ‘other’, whether they are Armenian, Jew or Baha’i, since the raison d’être of such a political system, which is walking on an ideological tightrope, is to have enemies, both inside and outside the country. 

“I believe, as in the case of Stalin’s Russia or Hitler’s Germany, the Islamic Republic of Iran cannot survive without an ideology that discriminates against the ‘other’.”

In this religious apartheid, “recognised” non-Muslim Iranians, who were called “brothers” when fighting and dying together with Muslim Iranians in the war with Iraq, can be declared “infidels” and deprived of their rights during the division of inheritance.

A Christian family can even be rendered homeless in a very short space of time if one member of the family becomes a Muslim as, according to the law of the Islamic Republic, that individual is therefore entitled to inherit everything, at the expense of all the others.

Or consider employment: 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.

Meanwhile, the testimony in court even of the Armenian representative who speaks of minorities’ “equal rights” cannot be accepted against that of a Muslim.

Then, after finishing his term in the Majlis, this representative will not be able to find a job in, say, the army or many other-state run institutions – for one simple reason: he is not Muslim.

The institutions and activities of religious minorities are tightly controlled and must operate within the framework of government laws and demands. The same is true of representatives of religious minorities in parliament.

Surrender to survive

Members of parliament in Iran, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, were not elected in free elections – the extremely conservative Guardian Council filters candidates and checks if they are “loyal to the Islamic Republic, its leader, and the Revolution” – while all precautions are taken to protect the Islamic Republic and its interests above anything else.

Representatives of religious minorities therefore find themselves almost forced to defend the interests and discourse of a government that has deprived them of many of their rights, in an attempt perhaps to regain those lost rights or to prevent their further deterioration.

Probably the main achievement of these MPs was the approval in 2003 of a bill on equal “blood-money”, or diyeh, for Muslim and non-Muslim Iranians. But still 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.

For the government of the Islamic Republic, which has been repeatedly condemned by international organisations, including the United Nations, for human rights abuses, including against the rights of minorities, representatives of religious minorities have both internal and external propaganda use.

In their interviews, they are the mouthpiece of the Islamic Republic’s narrative about minorities, denying any discriminatory policy against themselves, and even going so far as to claim Christian converts do not exist. 

In the religious apartheid created by the Islamic government, the survival of one group, in the judgment of these MPs, seems tied to the negation of another.

The Islamic Republic has taken religious minority representatives on numerous official engagements around the world to accomplish a simple mission – in the words of one minority representative: “To reveal the conspiracies of the arrogant and ‘Zionist’ media against the honourable nation of Iran and the holy system of the Islamic Republic.”

Roobik Ghahramanian, a fellow Iranian-Armenian journalist who now lives in Yerevan, told Article18: “The Iranian government uses the news about repairing and restoring few churches, in international conferences or fora, as examples that the Islamic Republic provides for minorities to enjoy their rights, but the rights of minorities in any society are not limited to repairing a few monuments. 

“Restrictions and discrimination have made religious-minority numbers decrease and forced them to flee Iran to such an extent that the number of Armenians in Iran today doesn’t even reach 20,000. Cities such as Shahinshahr, Anzali, Rasht, Abadan and Gorgan no longer have any active Armenian churches, schools or associations. The same is now also true of Urmia and Tabriz.”

Parliament is the only place in the government structure where representatives of religious minorities can communicate and negotiate with government officials to preserve what is left for them.

Decades of repression have institutionalised fear in religious minorities, and it seems that individuals in these communities, including members of parliament, see no choice but to surrender to the Islamic Republic, at the expense of denying facts and even the identities of their co-religionists.

The Islamic Republic’s minority-phobic policies have reduced the population of Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians, according to some estimates, by a third over the past four decades, while at the same time the country’s population has doubled. 

These citizens have decided to emigrate and flee from the land where their ancestors lived for hundreds or even thousands of years, and died to defend its land alongside other citizens, because they have lived under the realities of the Islamic Republic and not the slogans of government officials, including their representatives.


Fred Petrossian is a Brussels-based Iranian-Armenian journalist and researcher.