Analysis

Iran’s tightening grip on religious minorities

Iran’s tightening grip on religious minorities

This article was written by Marjan Keypour Greenblatt, founder and director of the Alliance for Rights of all Minorities (ARAM). It was first published on the Middle East Institute website on 7 December, under the headline “A stranger among us: Iran’s tightening grip on religious minorities”, and is reproduced here with kind permission. 


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For thousands of years, Iran has stood out as a culture that prized diversity and a place where religious minorities have flourished as independent communities. The Islamic Republic now seeks to change that, however, by implanting its own leaders inside different faith groups to protect and advance its interests. This approach could doom these ancient minorities to a future that includes altered traditions and even the risk of disappearing from Iran altogether.

The Islamic Republic formally banned conversion from Islam decades ago. This powerful tool prevented minority communities from growing beyond their birthrates. But today Iran takes a more active role in the affairs of religious minorities, imposing inconsistent regulations, draining their assets, and anointing successors to weaken the traditional leadership and gain control of these populations. These influencers typically have been given incentives such as funds, access to power, safety, and other privileges in exchange for collaborating with the Iranian government.

This appears to be part of a broader plan to infiltrate these communities so that the Islamic Republic’s leadership can expand its influence and exercise greater control over them. This brand of religious intolerance is a stark departure from traditional Persian cultural practices. Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Pahlavi dynasty, harkening back to the time of Cyrus the Great, maintained a policy of allowing religious minorities to flourish. Even though there were religious prejudices born out of ignorance, under the law minorities were allowed to worship freely, practice their rituals, and live as full citizens. After the fall of the shah, however, many minority leaders accepted the new reality and expressed their loyalty to the Islamic regime. This included acceptance of second-class citizenship for the country’s Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians, as outlined in the new Iranian Constitution. These religious leaders did so to ensure some freedom and security for their communities, with the hope of preserving their religious and cultural traditions as much as possible. Maintaining a balancing act between their religious community and the theocracy, however difficult, allowed this generation of religious leaders to retain their traditions and beliefs.

The Islamic Republic also deploys language to influence and control religious minorities. For example, Christians are required to perform services only in ancient languages such as Assyrian and Armenian, but not in Persian, which the regime fears would facilitate conversions. And while Jews are allowed to pray in Hebrew, they are forbidden from teaching the spoken language for fear of so-called Zionists gaining influence inside Iran. By enforcing such haphazard regulations, the Iranian government monitors, isolates, and oppresses religious minorities, including Sufis, Sunnis, Zoroastrians, Christians, and Jews. The following provides some historical background and analysis of current discriminatory measures against these five groups.

Nematollahi Gonabadi Sufis

The Nematollahi Gonabadi dervishes represent a popular, centuries-old Sufi offshoot of Shi’a Islam and are characterised by their selfless “service and love of all human beings.”

Hamid Gharagozloo, a representative of the International Organisation to Protect Human Rights, explained that the 90-year-old dervish leader (or “Ghotb”), Dr. Noor Ali Tabandeh, stood for ideals that seemed contrary to the Iranian government. “To him nothing was more holy and important than the life of a person,” said Gharagozloo. Seeing the popular leader as a threat, officials placed him under house arrest for nearly two years and forced him to choose a successor from a list of candidates cleared by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. While under house arrest, Dr. Tabandeh complained about poisoned food; after his death, dervish leaders claimed to find evidence of foul play.

Gharagozloo explained that the list of successors included Dr. Tabandeh’s second nephew, Reza Tabandeh. Young and foreign-educated, he had superficial credentials and claimed the revered title of “Ghotb,” but like the other candidates, he would likely have put the government’s interests before the well-being of the community. To minimise the potential damage to the order, Dr. Tabandeh reluctantly agreed to the oldest person on the list, Alireza Jazbi. Unfortunately, the results under Jazbi have been troubling, as the Gonabadis are experiencing radical changes to their long-standing traditions. Gharagozloo explained that previously anyone could become a dervish without any preconditions, but new rules of conversion require the individual to first study Islam with a marja taghlid— a high-ranking Shi’a clergy member formally affiliated with the Islamic Republic. This requirement is expected to drastically reduce the size of the community, which has been extremely popular among converts. In the past 40 years since the Islamic Revolution, the number of adherents has grown significantly and some estimates suggest it is now in the millions. Moreover, the community fears that the “study” phase with regime-approved clergy will provide an opportunity to inculcate the Islamic Revolution’s values while distorting the community’s traditional ones.

Sunnis

The Islamic Republic has long imposed repressive measures against Sunnis that have escalated from restrictive to violent. According to Ebrahim Ahrari Khalaf, host of Cheshmandaz program on Kalameh TV and himself a Sunni Muslim, “There is a direct influence of the regime among the Sunnis.” Since the Islamic Revolution, the government has utilised various measures to control and monitor the Sunni population, which is sizeable, estimated at up to 10 million people in Iran. The Office of the Supreme Leader controls every aspect of Sunni life, including management of schools, publication of books, affairs of the mosque, activities of the clergy, and even the weekly sermons delivered by Sunni imams. Every Friday prayer or sermon must be cleared by the Office of the Supreme Leader and contain required talking points prepared by the government.

For decades the regime has also tried to centralise the worship of the Sunni population. Its primary strategy was to establish religious institutions under the auspices of Qom, the seat of Shi’a Islam in the country. Following conflicts with the Kurds, the regime established the Grand Islamic Center in Sanandaj to gradually assume oversight over all aspects of religious life in predominantly Sunni regions such as Kurdistan, Western Azerbaijan, and Kermanshah. During Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, the regime initiated the “Regulation of Sunni Schools of Iran,” which took control of Sunni educational institutions against their wishes. It mandated special approval for every Sunni imam, usurping the community’s ability to choose its own religious clergy and spiritual leadership. These policies gradually centralised oversight of all clergy by creating an employment and reporting system so that their activities would be controlled.

As part of this strategy, Imam Molavi Makhdouni in Khorasan was replaced by Molavi Mousa Karam Pour by the Ministry of Intelligence in 1990. Karam Pour was initially installed to create division among Sunnis in Mashhad, but eventually his capacity to unify the region’s Sunnis made him a threat to the regime. As such, in 1994, Masjed Feiz, his mosque, was attacked with 50 bulldozers and cranes and levelled to the ground. Karam Pour was subsequently assassinated. In Taibad region, Imam Molavi Ebrahim Seifi Zadeh was arrested in 1991 and lashed on charges of violating national security and blasphemy. He was forced into exile in Afghanistan and then assassinated two years ago. In 2010, Sheikh Ghoreishi, the Sunni leader in Talesh region, was arrested, exiled, and replaced by Vaha Bina, who took over the educational programs for Sunnis. 

Zoroastrians

In 2020, the indigenous Zoroastrian community was rocked by the news of the murder of their leader Arash Kasravi, along with his companions. The Zoroastrians advocated for a thorough investigation and arrest of the perpetrator, but the local prosecutor declared that the suspect had committed suicide, leaving no legal recourse for the family. The new “official” community leader, Ardeshir Khorshidian, strictly follows the ideology of the regime. He even promotes the so-called Twelfth Imam, the hidden prophet known as the Mahdi, despite the fact that this is a tenet of Shi’a Islam and has nothing to do with the Zoroastrian faith.

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Christians

The regime’s malign influence on Iran’s Christian leadership is not sufficiently well known among the international community. In 2014, Victor Bet Tamraz, the long-time Iranian-Assyrian pastor of the Pentecostal Church of Shahrara in Tehran, was violently deposed from his pulpit. He endured solitary confinement for 65 days and faced a 10-year prison sentence for exercising his religious leadership. The church was shut down and the congregation was stripped of its sanctuary and clergy.

But the state’s grip on the religious leadership of minorities persists among surviving churches. “We know there’s always a government agent or dual agent who monitors the speeches, sermons, and activities of the church to make sure we’re not speaking out against the government and not expressing negative sentiments about the regime,” said Juliana Taimourazy, 2021 Nobel Peace Prize nominee and the president of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council, who left Iran because of the difficulties and discrimination she faced as a practicing Christian.

The millennia-old Christian Assyrian community in Iran had around 90,000 members before the Islamic Revolution. However, in its aftermath, the pressures on the community, primarily driven by their second-class citizenship and the hostile environment, prompted many to leave the country and join the diaspora, reducing its numbers to less than 7,000 people. “This mass exodus speaks for itself,” Taimourazy said. “This is a form of religious genocide,” where no blood is shed but a civilisation is gradually eliminated because its people are “oppressed, mocked, and harassed for their faith.” Those who stayed behind were the aged and infirm, along with a small number of younger Christians who had never seen their community enjoy any measure of freedom and thus lack the vision to restore its rights.

The Assyrian population is not the only Christian group oppressed by the regime either. Other communities are forced to abide by restrictions such as bans on worshiping in Persian and proselytising or engaging in external conversations about their faith, as well as being forced to include non-Christians in their celebrations.

Mansour Borji, the advocacy director of the religious rights organisation Article18, indicated that on several occasions community-elected Christian leaders were not allowed to serve their duties and had to step down in favour of government-appointed figures. Borji also explained a surprising nuance in the oppression of religious minorities: Despite the mass exodus of Christians, the “Iranian regime would prefer to have some presence of Christians in Iran, provided that they would comply with their demands and perpetuate the state propaganda that they have tolerance toward other faiths.”

To position itself as maintaining the country’s longstanding traditions of religious tolerance, the Islamic Republic has allowed faith groups to have limited representation in the Iranian parliament, but their powers are severely constrained. Most notoriously, Yonatan Betkolia, Iran’s Assyrian Christian MP, projects an image of tolerance and pluralism in Iran; defends its foreign ambitions; and criticises everything from countries like the US and Israel to MPs in the Netherlands and religious groups in Australia. Leaders like Betkolia play a role on the global stage by falsely attesting to the freedom of religion in Iran, and their domestic function is to enforce the restrictions imposed by the Islamic Republic. The most visible example is their participation in the unpopular Iranian elections, which are widely boycotted by citizens of all religions. In maintaining the regime’s status quo, Borji explains that “any [Christian leader] who crosses this line would fall out of favour and soon be banished.”

Jews

The tactic of inserting leaders into communities also has been used by the Islamic Republic to infiltrate the Jewish community. Rabbi Yehuda Gerami, a young and charismatic individual ordained at Ner Israel Rabbinical College, rose through the ranks of Jewish clergy in Iran and has been paraded abroad as Iran’s “chief rabbi.” His recent trip to the US was pre-approved by the Ministry of Guidance and was doubtless used to generate intelligence for the Iranian government.

Rabbi Gerami seems genuinely concerned with the success and safety of his community; however, he was ordained in the Ashkenazi tradition of Chabad, with a culture and practices that differ from Iranian Jews’ Mizrahi traditions that date back 3,000 years to ancient Babylonia. Rabbi Gerami is steering the next generation of Iranian Jews away from these roots. This type of tension between an outside rabbi penetrating native religious traditions is not unique to Iran; it has been seen in other countries in recent years as well. For example, Rabbi Gerami is introducing wig wearing among observant Jewish women, a common tradition among Orthodox women in the West, but one that was never part of the Iranian Jewish practice.

Abroad, Rabbi Gerami’s stances have raised eyebrows and prompted alarm among Jews across the spectrum. Not only has he supported the regime with statements such as his expression of sympathy after Qassem Soleimani’s assassination, he has refused to call out its antisemitic rhetoric and Holocaust denialism.

As is the case with all activities coordinated by the Iranian Ministry of Guidance, Rabbi Gerami’s movements abroad are carefully planned and intended to deliver a message. In a two-month trip in October and November, he visited areas with large Jewish populations, such as New York, Los Angeles, and the Greater DC area. It should be recognised that Gerami’s affiliation with Chabad gives him access to an international network of Jewish leaders and communities known for their social services and charitable giving. His trip has been covered by the American Jewish press, with one fringe Orthodox magazine praising “religious freedom” and the “thriving Jewish community” in Iran — proof that Rabbi Gerami has been successful in expanding his international network and delivering the Ministry of Guidance’s message.

This should also serve as a reminder that American elected officials and other policymakers must exercise deep skepticism when dealing with Iranian religious dignitaries. The facts on the ground in Iran are not necessarily as they are presented by clergy of different faiths who visit the US While the separation of church and state is a core Western value, this is far from the case in the Islamic Republic.

Outlook

Most countries appropriately view religious freedom as a basic human right — and that means allowing people to worship as they choose, enabling communities to select their own leaders, and allowing faith groups to preserve their traditions. The Islamic Republic refuses to grant its own religious minorities this basic freedom. This is telling and a clear reminder that, despite its propaganda, the government in Tehran is committed to nothing more than preserving its own power and is more than willing to sacrifice the rights and freedoms of its citizens to do so.