How Hassan Rouhani failed to deliver on his election promises to religious minorities

How Hassan Rouhani failed to deliver on his election promises to religious minorities

This is an English translation of an article first published in Persian on the website

As the next Iranian presidential election approaches, Christian convert Fatemeh (Mary) Mohammadi interviewed Article18’s Kiaa Aalipour about the situation of religious minorities, especially Christians, during President Hassan Rouhani’s two terms in office.

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On the eve of every election, Hassan Rouhani has come up with a range of popular slogans. Please can you give us some examples of the promises he has made regarding religious minorities, and assess how consistent these pledges were with his performance?

On the eve of the 2013 elections, Hassan Rouhani issued a 10-point statement, promising to address the demands of religious and ethnic minorities.

In this statement, he called Iran “a fragrant garden of different climates, languages, religions and sects” and promised that, if elected, he would establish a government that would provide all Iranians with “hope” of a “free” and “prosperous” society.

After winning the election, Mr Rouhani created a new position within the government – for the first time since the revolution – of Special Advisor on Ethnic and Religious Minority Affairs – and then he proceeded to appoint Ali Younesi, the former Minister of Intelligence, to this position. 

The reality is that eight years on, unfortunately, no measures have been taken to solve the problems of minorities, and all the hopes that existed have been dashed. 

These promises remained only election slogans, and the repression of religious and ethnic minorities intensified. 

Regarding ethnic minorities, I must point out that the number of arrests and executions of ethnic minorities have unfortunately increased significantly compared to previous years.

And regarding religious minorities, as this is focus of our discussion, unfortunately I must say they continue to be repressed and continue to face organised and structured religious persecution and discrimination. 

One of the promises Rouhani made to religious minorities in his statement was “the elimination of undue discrimination in all its dimensions and forms”, ​​but this promise also remained only an election slogan.

Hassan Rouhani did fulfil one of his election promises during the last months of his first term of office, when he signed the Charter on Citizens’ Rights. But from the very beginning many believed this charter had no legal power, and over time this has been proven true. In reality, this charter has done nothing to alleviate the problems of religious minorities. 

For example, Article 10 of the Charter states: “Insulting, degrading, or inciting hatred towards different ethnicities and followers of different religions, sects and social and political groups is prohibited.” And yet we have often heard regime officials using phrases such as “Zionist Christianity”, “Baha’i heresy”, and accusations of “spying”, and many other cases of incitement to hatred – and many members of religious minorities have been arrested, insulted and humiliated simply because of their beliefs. 

So، despite all these promises of the government for “freedom” and “hope”, religious minorities continue to face a lot of legalised discrimination in the Iranian civil code, for which no solution has been devised.

Please can you provide examples of this legalised discrimination?

Here are a few examples: 

1. Employment 

Religious minorities are not allowed to hold governmental positions, such as judge, ambassador, minister, president, and many other occupations, and these discriminatory laws restrict these positions to Muslims only. However, the Sunnis are also deprived of many of these jobs.

To become a teacher, regardless of one’s education, there are special conditions set by the Ministry of Education that make employment impossible for religious minorities.

Among these conditions, we can mention the belief in Islam and in velayat-e faqih (the office of the Supreme Leader). And when applying for jobs within any government-run institution, including education, a person’s religion is also asked.

2. Marriage 

According to Article 1059 of the Civil Code of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a Muslim man can marry a non-Muslim woman, but the opposite is not allowed. It is not possible for a non-Muslim man to marry a Muslim woman. 

Marriage of Christian converts, Baha’is, and other unrecognised religious groups is also not recognised unless performed in accordance with Islamic law.

3. Adoption

Members of religious minorities are not allowed to adopt a child born to Muslim parents. A recent case in point is the bitter story of Lydia, a two-year-old girl. According to a Bushehr judge’s ruling last year, her Christian-convert adoptive parents, Maryam Falahi and Sam Khosravi, should not be permitted custody of Lydia, just because she is considered a Muslim, and should return the child to an orphanage after two years as her parents. 

This was despite the judge noting in his verdict that there was clearly “a strong emotional tie” between the child and the couple, and that with the return of this sick child to an orphanage an “unknown future” awaits Lydia, and the probability that another family will adopt her, because of her health problems, is “zero”. 

In October of last year, more than 120 lawyers, civil society and child rights activists wrote an open letter to the head of the judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi, calling for the Bushehr court to overturn the decision, but the judiciary has not yet responded to this request.

4. Military service

Non-Muslims are not recruited into the Iranian armed forces, but non-Muslim men must still do military service. 

Many religious minorities were killed in the war with Iraq, and sacrificed their lives for their country, Iran, but this discriminatory law still persists.

5. Retribution

Article 310 of the Islamic Penal Code provides for retribution in kind (qisas)for the murderer if the victim is a Muslim, but if the victim is a non-Muslim, they are not entitled to retribution. I oppose executions and retribution, but this article still highlights the difference in the right to life between Muslims and religious minorities in Iran.

6. Hijab

Islamic hijab is mandatory for all Iranian women, including non-Muslims.

7. Inheritance

Another legal article that is very strange and shows the Iranian government’s view of religious minorities is Article 881 of the Civil Code. According to this article, “an ‘infidel’ [non-Muslim] cannot inherit from a Muslim, and if there is a Muslim among the heirs of a deceased ‘infidel’, the heirs of the ‘infidel’ will not inherit, even if they are superior to the Muslim in terms of class and rank”. 

Aside from the fact that this article of the law is very discriminatory and encourages religious minorities to convert to Islam for financial reasons, it shows that even the “People of the Book”, i.e. Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians, are considered “infidels”. 

In an interview with Euronews, Koroush Niknam, a Zoroastrian cleric and former representative of Iranian Zoroastrians in the Islamic Consultative Assembly, said: “I asked them to add a note to this article mentioning that at least the legally recognised religious minorities are not infidels, but they didn’t write that. It means they see us as infidels. Although they don’t attack our wives and children, still we are not first-class citizens. We are not even second- or third-class citizens. We are considered infidels.”

8. Belief

Article 23 of the Iranian Constitution states that the “investigation of individuals’ beliefs is forbidden, and no-one may be molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief”. Unfortunately, this principle is not observed.

In democracies, even questioning the religious beliefs of another can be considered a kind of investigation and interference into private affairs, but in Iran, members of society are divided into first-, second- and third-class citizens based on religious identity. Twelver Shiite Muslims can be considered first-class citizens, if they do not object to the religious reading of the Iranian government and have the characteristics that the government seeks. According to the 13th article of the Constitution, Jews, Zoroastrians and Christians – and of course here they mean Christians of Armenian and Assyrian descent – are the only religious minorities recognised in Iran. 

But given the discrimination that I have highlighted, even these recognised religious minorities are at best second-class citizens, while unrecognised minorities like the Baha’is and Christian converts are third-class citizens and therefore under a lot of pressure. 

I must also point out here that if recognised Christians help and support Christian converts, they too will be prosecuted and, in practice, become third-class citizens like Christian converts. As examples, I can mention the cases of Iranian-Armenian Christian Sevada Aghasar and the Iranian-Assyrian Christian couple Victor Bet-Tamraz and Shamiram Issavi and their son Ramiel Bet-Tamraz, who were sentenced to prison only for this reason and suffered a lot.

What types of harassment and pressure has the Christian community in Iran experienced during Rouhani’s eight years in office?

Ethnic and recognised Christian communities, namely Assyrians and Armenians, are permitted a degree of freedom to worship, although, as I said, they also suffer restrictions and discrimination on a large scale. Meanwhile, Armenians and Assyrians do not have the right to hold church services in Persian and must worship in their own language.

The growing community of Christian converts are not allowed to attend official churches. They are forced to attend house-churches, accepting the risk of arrest and imprisonment. 

Many Christian converts do not publicly profess their beliefs for fear of religious persecution. In recent years, many Iranian Christians have faced prison sentences ranging from one to 15 years on trumped-up charges of “acting against national security”. 

These political accusations are made in order to prevent the international community from protesting against accusations that have a religious basis, such as attending a peaceful worship meeting in a private home, or “apostasy”.

In the past decade since Ahmadinejad’s presidency, almost all official Persian-language churches have been forced to close their Persian meetings or close the church altogether. 

The publication of the Bible and Christian books in Persian is also prohibited. Those who have such books or Christian educational materials, especially if they have a sufficient number so as to be available to others interested, can anticipate harsh consequences and prison sentences. 

Of course, I must point out that the Iranian government has published a limited number of Bibles for research purposes only, which are available to specific individuals.

Christians in Iran, particularly Christian converts, have faced prison, exile, deprivation of education, dismissal from work, raids on house-churches, flogging, confiscation of property, sexual assault, and even deprivation of the right to have an adopted child

Iranian Christians continue to witness the conversion, destruction and confiscation of their religious properties. 

At least 19 Christian citizens in Iran are currently in prison or exile, and more are awaiting trial and sentencing.

Every year, Article18 publishes a detailed report on the situation of Christians in Iran. To clarify the situation of the Christian community, I will refer to some statistics related to the year 2020:

  • Last year, 115 Christians were arrested in Iran.
  • Of these, 38 were arrested and detained.
  • Christians were forced to pay a combined sum of $1 million in bail.
  • A total of 44 Christians were sentenced to more than 150 years in prison and five years in exile.
  • Two Christian converts also received a combined 160 lashes.

Each of these numbers represents an individual and family who have suffered a lot just because they have a different belief. We should not allow any of them to become just a number.

Christian convert Saheb Fadaie is one such example. 

His job was as a painter-decorator, and he also played the guitar very well.

In May 2016, Saheb Fadaie – along with fellow Christian converts Yousef Nadarkhani, Yousef’s wife, Mohammad Reza (Youhan) Omidi and Mohammad Ali (Yasser) Mossayebzadeh – were arrested by security agents as they participated in a Christian service at a private home in Rasht.

In one of the cases later brought against this Christian convert, Saheb was sentenced to 80 lashes in a court in Rasht. 

In the other case, which was filed against him on security charges, he was tried in Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court of Tehran. 

In July 2017, Judge Ahmadzadeh, head of Branch 26 of the Islamic Revolutionary Court, sentenced Saheb, Yousef, Youhan, and Yasser to 10 years in prison for “forming a house-church” and “promoting” so-called “Zionist Christianity”. 

In the autumn of last year, Saheb and Youhan each received 80 lashes for drinking wine as part of the Christian ritual of Holy Communion, where Christians eat bread, wine, or grape juice in remembrance of Jesus’ “Last Supper” with his disciples. 

The government of the Islamic Republic does not recognise Christian converts as Christians, and Christian converts who drink alcohol are therefore tried as though they were Muslims. 

In house-churches, Christians worship in a completely peaceful way, according to their beliefs. Equality before the law is undeniable. The Christian New Testament and Bible they read are the same books that Armenian and Assyrian Christians read in their churches and in their own language. So there is no criminal activity in these house-churches. 

How is it from the legal point of view that house-churches are criminal, but house-mosques and house-meetings of Shiite Muslims are allowed? 

Last year, an appeals court reduced Yousef and Saheb’s sentenced from 10 to six years, and Youhan’s from 10 to two years in prison.

The right to freedom of religion and belief must be for all citizens, regardless of their beliefs.

Another example is the Christian couple Sara Ahmadi and Homayoun Zhaveh, who have been sentenced to eight and two years in prison, respectively, for their peaceful ideological activities. Homayoun suffers from Parkinson’s disease and his wife takes care of him.

The church and freedom of religion and belief should be the right of all Christians, whether converts or born into Christian homes. 

The closure of churches, seizure of church property, detention of Christians, and preventing people from going to church are all clear violations of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights regarding freedom of religion and belief. It should also be noted that Iran is one of the signatories of this global declaration.

Iran’s failures in this regard have been met with strong criticism from the international community. For example, the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution last autumn, condemning “grave violations” of human rights in Iran – including violation of women’s rights, torture of prisoners, and violation of the rights of religious minorities – and called on the government of the Islamic Republic to end the immunity of perpetrators of crimes against religious minorities.

Iran is ranked eighth in the world in terms of persecution of Christians in the annual list of the international watchdog on the persecution of Christians, Open Doors. Last year, Iran was ranked ninth in the world, and during the entire period of Rouhani’s rule, Iran’s ranking has never been outside of the top 10 persecutors. So, we have not seen any improvement in this regard. 

It should also be noted that the difference between Iran’s overall “score” for persecution and those even higher up on the list is very small.

To what extent is determining the type and intensity of pressure on the Christian community in Iran influenced by the president’s decisions? Can a change of president be expected to reduce persecution of Christians, or is there an overriding clear and systematic plan against this community?

As I mentioned earlier, there is a lot of legalised discrimination in Iranian law which is in serious conflict with international human rights standards.

Unfortunately, the Iranian government, in a structural way and with hate-speech and false “security” accusations, normalises the violation of the rights of religious minorities, especially unrecognised religions such as the Baha’is and Christian converts, and this is one of the macro-policies of the regime. 

At times the repression of religious minorities has intensified, but in practice this policy has been pursued since the beginning of the revolution. Religious minorities are persecuted, pressured, and prosecuted by the Iranian government solely for practising their own beliefs through peaceful activities.

An arrangement such as holding a private Christmas party or setting up a house-church can have serious consequences. But the Iranian judiciary refers to these acts, which should be a fundamental right of every citizen, as “acting against national security” and “illegal church activities”, and even the incomprehensible term “Zionist Christianity”. 

Iran’s presidents since the revolution haven’t alleviated the suffering of religious minorities or prevented the pressures against them. So, in answer to your question, I have to say that, in Iran, positive changes in the field of human rights are usually very slow, and I do not think we will see fundamental changes with a change of president. 

But of course we can still hold on to hope and do our best to help effect change in this regard. Our goal as human rights defenders is to raise awareness, and to support people so as to reduce human suffering, and we will continue to work to this end.

To what extent is the president responsible for human rights violations during his presidency? Can he claim to be the main decision-maker and shirk the burden of accountability?

Although in Iran not all authority is in the hands of the president, and parallel security organisations operate, nevertheless the president and his officials, especially the commanders and agents, as well as their managers and lobbyists inside and outside the country, as part of this system, all must be held accountable for violations of human rights in Iran. 

Rouhani’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has claimed that religious minorities in Iran were free and said: “We do not imprison anyone in Iran for their beliefs.” 

On the other hand, about two years ago, Mahmoud Alavi, the Minister of Intelligence of the Rouhani government, for the first time revealed the actions of this ministry and its cooperation with seminaries to counter the spread of Christianity in the country. 

Mahmoud Alavi also acknowledged in his speech that “people tend to become Christians who are ordinary people in society – for example, their job was to sell sandwiches and the like, and they become Christian families”.

These statements by the Minister of Intelligence are in stark contrast to the security allegations made by the revolutionary courts against Christian converts, who are described as “seasoned agents” and “spies” of Western countries. 

Given the numerous violations of the rights of religious minorities during the Rouhani era, which have been coordinated and implemented by his ministries, there is no doubt that the president, as head of the government, is fully responsible for and must be held accountable for blatant human rights violations.

The Iranian government must recognise all religious minorities, including the “unrecognised” religions and Persian-speaking Christians, as full citizens before the law, and release all prisoners of conscience unconditionally so that they too can enjoy their most basic human rights. 

Iran belongs to all Iranians, regardless of ethnicity, race or belief. Hopefully one day we will not have first- and second-class citizens in Iran. 

In the words of the Iranian poet Ahmad Shamlu: “I look forward to that day, even if I will not be here to see it.”