Religious minorities in Iran: violence, resistance and hope

Religious minorities in Iran: violence, resistance and hope

This article, written by Iranian-Armenian Christian Fred Petrossian, was first published by MvoicesIran and is reproduced here with kind permission.

Illustration: Assad Binakhahi for MvoicesIran.

It is enough just to take a look at the newborn babies in an Iranian hospital. The future of a child under the rule of the Islamic Republic, even with hard work and high intelligence, can be easily predicted in a few words. The child for the rest of his/her life will be deprived of the most fundamental human and civil rights because he/she comes from a family belonging to a religious minority. In the future, he/she may be called Najis, or unclean; he/she may be sent to prison and even forced to leave his/her homeland or deprived of work and education. In any case, he/she will be a second or third-class citizen and will not have equal access to the same social and economic opportunities as a Shiite Muslim unless he/she denies his/her identity.

From the standpoint of the Islamic Republic of Iran, “unrecognised” minorities such as the followers of Yarsan, Baha’is, Christian converts, and Mandaeans are nothing more than “ghosts”. Even Sunnis or Dervishes, who are Twelver Shiites but have different interpretations of Islam, have faced and continue to face discrimination and repression. Four decades of the policy of de-identification and institutionalisation of fear by the regime has been confronted with resistance from the oppressed religious communities – a creative resistance to preserve identity in spite of consequences that would cost some of them their lives. Beyond the community of religious minorities, some individuals and groups, contrary to the prevailing discourse, have supported these citizens who have become “ghosts” due to the policies of the Islamic Republic.

Over the past four decades, by exerting structural and institutionalised violence and legalising discrimination against millions of religious minorities, the Iranian regime has sought to subdue, de-identify, and even eradicate them.

The Islamic Republic has humiliated religious minorities through the educational system and religious debates and has also “dehumanised” some of these minorities by calling them Najis (unclean). Besides direct and structural violence, this can be called cultural violence.

Triple violence: from execution to employment and education deprivation

Direct violence: Since the very first days of the Iranian revolution, Islamists have targeted religious minorities and committed many crimes against them, including cutting the throat of the Rev. Arastoo Sayyah, a pastor of an Anglican church in Shiraz, executing Habibollah Elghanian, an entrepreneur and chairman of the Jewish Association, and kidnapping and executing a group of Baha’i leaders.

Under the rule of the Islamic Republic, property belonging to many religious institutions, including Christian hospitals, was confiscated. The Iranian regime claims the country does not imprison people for their opinions. But over the last four decades, the regime has spread terror among the groups whose religions are considered “undesirable”. They’ve done it many different ways, such as the execution and murder of over 200 Baha’isthe slaughter of Christian leadersexecution of Jewish entrepreneurs, and destruction of the dervish monasteries.

In addition to physical violence, hatred against minorities has continued since 1979. The Baha’is are called a “deviant cult,” and many Christian converts are arrested and labeled as “Zionist Christians.”

Members of the Yarsan religion were prohibited from constructing places of worship, could not organise burials in accordance with their religion, and could not print their holy book without fear of being charged with acting against the regime or insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

The systematic destruction of Baha’i cemeteries, and the recent demolition of the grave of the Rev. Hossein Soodmand, who was executed on charges of apostasy, show that the regime will not give up on persecuting minorities even after death.

The Iranian regime has legitimised the physical and direct repression of religious minorities, as the judiciary and legislators themselves are part of this system of anti-minority discrimination. Recently the authorities ordered the confiscation of Baha’i properties on several occasions.

Structural violence: Institutions and policies of the Islamic Republic have been designed in such a way that many Iranians, including religious minorities and women, are deprived of their civil and human rights and are not given equal opportunities. The regime institutionalises and legalises discrimination and divides Iranians within a framework of “religious” and “gender apartheid”.

According to the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran: Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians (excluding Christian converts) are the only recognised 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 can have representation in parliament. These legislators who are knowingly or unknowingly victims of “religious apartheid” in Iran have become propagandists of the Islamic Republic in the hope of gaining equal rights and preserving the diminished rights of the groups they are “representing.”

Many government institutions do not employ even the minorities recognised in the Constitution. For example, members of religious minorities in Iran, like other citizens, sacrificed their lives defending the country during the Iran-Iraq war, but they have not been able to serve in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Army since 1987. In other words, the regime has imposed economic and employment sanctions on millions of religious minorities in their own country, placing many who are unable to meet the bare necessities for their survival in economic inequality and poverty.

This structural violence is also applied to inheritance law. If someone from a family belonging to a religious minority converts to Islam, he or she can inherit the entire estate. The Iranian state has devalued the religious minorities to such an extent that even their testimony in court against a Muslim is not accepted.

“Good” minorities have been recognised by the Islamic Republic, while Baha’is, Christian converts, followers of Yarsan, and Mandaeans are defined as “ghosts” according to the Islamic Republic. In other words, as long as they refuse to deny their identities, they will be defenseless people who risk being abducted from their homes, deprived of education and property, or imprisoned.

Based on the ideological perspective of theocracy in Iran, these citizens are considered “politically problematic individuals”, just like Nazi Germany that, based on its ideology of racism, considered the Jews to be a political problem not because of their activities and beliefs, but because of their very existence.

The Islamic Republic has condemned the religious beliefs and identities of citizens belonging to religious minorities, even denying their right to exist.

According to Johan Galtung, a Norwegian theorist and the “father” of peace studies: direct violence, which includes killing, repression, and hatred, is rooted in structural and cultural violence.

He also explains “by cultural violence we mean those aspects of culture, the symbolic sphere of our existence -exemplified by religion and ideology, language and art, empirical science and formal science (logic, mathematics) – that can be used to justify or legitimise direct or structural violence.”

Cultural violence: The Iranian regime abuses the early stages of education and schools to institutionalise the doctrine of Shia supremacy and the systematic humiliation of minorities.

“Under the rule of the Islamic Republic, all cultural institutions, especially the educational system, spread the belief that Islam is the last and most all-encompassing message of God and has a solution to all problems of society,” says Saeed Peyvandi, a Paris-based sociologist and university professor, and “that is why Islamic-Shiite propaganda has a strong and permanent presence not only in religious courses but also in many other courses; this is a kind of direct cultural violence or even symbolic violence in every sense of the word against religious minorities, atheists and those who would not like to accept government-style religiosity. Symbolic violence refers to the fact that children and adolescents are deprived of their right to choose a belief and religion, and forced to listen to the state-imposed narratives in the form of lessons or tasks – and even take the related exams – without the right to protest or defend. This religious coercion is perhaps the most challenging issue for the education of the younger generation and its religious affiliation.”

Many minorities, including Baha’is, the Yarsans, and Christian converts, are not allowed to learn their religion in school but are instead forced to attend Islamic culture and education classes.

In this regard, Saeed Peyvandi adds: “The education system imposes a constant humiliation and suffering on the younger generation. Not only do the discriminatory humiliation and classification of religions as well as the banning of Baha’i faith and atheism not end up at schools, but this also poisons the spirit of society, as they make equality and citizenship impossible. Those who accept and internalise such beliefs, or even passively adhere to them as citizens, will later build a relationship based on differences in faith with compatriots who have another religion or no religion. The idea of religious supremacy is intrinsically discriminatory and incites different forms of tension, discrimination, and violence in society.”

In addition to the domination of the Islamic perspective on education, we usually read in the media that some of the ayatollahs or leaders of the Islamic Republic consider “religious minorities” to be “Najis” (unclean) and in doing so, they normalise the dehumanisation of minorities. Many Christian converts when talking to the media or journalists after arrest or imprisonment have testified that their interrogators called them “Najis.” At times the regime has drawn unexpected and unprecedented lines of demarcation between Muslims and “Najis” insofar as ordering Baha’i villagers to separate their cows from those belonging to Muslims.

Civil rights activists in Iran have rarely objected to calling minorities “Najis”. Following the interrogation and torture of Christian converts, Baha’is, Yarsan, civil rights activists, or women’s rights activists, judges charge them with false offenses such as “propaganda against the regime” and “acting against national security” or order the confiscation of their lands.

Persecution meets resistance

Persecuted religious communities, while facing continuous repression and discrimination, have engaged in resistance and creative alternatives to preserve their identity and not surrender to the Islamic Republic’s will. Such activities include holding house church meetings by Christian converts and creating a virtual university by Baha’is. This “underground” University is run by 295 academics and staff and offers more than 922 courses.

They have also used other nonviolent methods to make the public aware of the persecution they face every day and to put pressure on the regime. Examples include the demonstration of Yarsan followers in protest against the insults in Eslamabad-e Gharb; several open letters from the Advisory Forum of Yarsan Civil Activists to the regime leaders calling on them to stop discrimination; a letter by a Christian convert to the Minister of Intelligence about deprivation of the right to have a church and creating the Instagram campaign “The church is the right of Christians”; hunger strikes of imprisoned Christian converts including Yousef Nadarkhani, who protested the deprivation of his children of the right to education; hunger strikes of imprisoned Gonabadi Dervish women following organised violence that was done by the prison’s guards at the Qarchak Prison; the gathering of thousands of Gonabadi Dervishes in front of Parliament to protest the damage to their house of worship by the authorities in Isfahan; imprisoned Baha’is’ letter to the former President, and “a Place2worship” campaign for the rights of persecuted Christian converts.

These are all forms of protest against religious apartheid in Iran. Religious minorities defend their basic rights and say: “We exist.”

In recent years, some individuals and groups belonging to Muslim or non-minority communities have broken the taboo of silence, supporting religious minorities’ rights and protesting their plight.

Hope for social cohesion against dehumanisation

At times Iranian citizens have individually and en masse supported the religious minorities. The letters and activities of Mohammad Nourizad, a political activist and journalist, were one of the most iconoclastic actions over the past few years. In response to several Grand Ayatollah’s denunciations of pagans, communists, atheists, and Baha’is as “unclean,” Nourizad launched a new campaign to “sweep clean” the face of humanity, Islam, and Shi’ism.” He also visited the house of a Baha’i prisoner and kissed the foot of a Baha’i child.

Faezeh Hashemi, political activist and the daughter of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, meets with her Baha’i cellmates after her release from prison and does not hesitate to take pictures with them.

Later in an interview, Faezeh Hashemi even praised Baha’i and Christian prisoners. In an open letter, 120 Iranian lawyers and civil rights activists called on the head of the judiciary to reverse an appeals court verdict separating a two-year-old child from her adoptive parents, who are Christian converts. Many have also joined the campaign “Iran without Hate” and said no to the “government-sponsored campaign of hate speech and propaganda against the Baha’is.”

At the same time, the minorities, individually or in groups, have also shared the pain of others. In recent years, the campaign “I am a Christian too” in Stockholm has defended Christian converts and supported prisoners of conscience and imprisoned civil rights activists. The “Gofteman” website, launched by the Baha’i international community, has conducted discussions with civil rights activists, journalists, and researchers on different topics such as social cohesion, social hope, and the media.

Mohammad Sharifi Moghadam, an imprisoned dervish and student activist, has described in a letter the conditions in the prisons and called for providing prisoners with books. Mary Mohammadi, a Christian convert and civil rights activist, participated in a protest rally against the downing of a Ukrainian plane by Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guard Corps and was arrested.

Considering the fact that many fundamental changes have taken place in the religious identity of Iranian society over the last four decades, these activities could be very important for social cohesion. According to a recent survey by the GAMAAN Institute in the Netherlands, 9% of Iranians who participated in this survey claimed to be atheists, and only 33% of them considered themselves Shiites. The target population in this survey was adult literate Iranians.

In Iran, beliefs and faiths different from the regime’s religious discourse have been welcomed by the citizens, while Twelver Shi’ism has been mandated as the official religion of Iran, and the government in referring to its own statistics declares Shiites to be more than 90% of the population.

Although members of the persecuted religious minority groups are victims of direct, structural, and cultural violence, they have shown the whole of society that it is possible to go against the stream, to face the consequences, and to keep distance from hatred through peaceful and creative resistance.