Annual report launch at UN Human Rights Council

Annual report launch at UN Human Rights Council

Two UN special rapporteurs and an Assyrian Christian couple forced to flee Iran after being sentenced to a combined 15 years in prison joined representatives from Article18 and Open Doors International at the UN Human Rights Council launch of our joint annual report last week.

The main contributions of the speakers are summarised below.

Javaid Rehman

Javaid Rehman, flanked by Article18’s Mansour Borji (right) and Wissam al-Saliby from the World Evangelical Alliance, who moderated the event.

The UN’s special rapporteur on the human rights situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Javaid Rehman, began the session by explaining that although the focus of his report was the response of the security forces to the protests in the wake of the killing of Mahsa Amini, he “also documented some very substantial concerns as regards ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities”. 

Mr Rehman said he had “serious concerns” regarding Kurds and Baluchis, but added: “They’re also minorities, but they are constitutionally recognised. Now, in terms of the non-recognised minorities, in particular the Christian converts and the Bahais, they really face the worst kind of persecution. They face arbitrary arrest, detention, and imprisonment. 

“And I noted in my presentation that there is an unacceptable level of persecution and harassment of members of these communities – they face arbitrary arrest and the destruction and confiscation of their properties. There are various other forms of threats, and Christian converts are actually the most vulnerable in the sense that they are not recognised: it is very difficult for the state and the state ideology to accept that Muslims, or Shia Muslims, would convert to another religion.”

Mr Rehman noted that although apostasy is “not contained in the Constitution or legislative framework as a capital offence, but in Sharia law this could and this does carry the death penalty, and therefore the judges use Article 167 of the Constitution to interpret apostasy as an offence that carries the death penalty. And we have a number of instances where people have been charged with the death penalty. 

“But inevitably a lot of Christian converts are charged with offences that carry national-security allegations: that they are breaching national security, and therefore they are persecuted, they are tortured, and they are made to somehow recant – to say that ‘OK, we’re no longer Christians’ – which is contrary to their moral and personal conscience. 

“So I remain extremely concerned at the situation of Christian converts, and I’m looking forward to some concrete recommendations as to how we can ensure that people of diverse religions or beliefs could live in a society which is overwhelmingly dominated by a particular ideological faith, and they are imposing that faith on the rest of the community.”

Fernand de Varennes

The second speaker was Fernand de Varennes, UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, who said he wanted to “present an even broader context as to what has occurred in relation to the Christian minority and other religious or belief minorities in Iran”.

Mr de Varennes highlighted the plight of the Bahais, before adding that the targeting of minorities “seems to be increasing also in relation to other religious minorities in Iran, and in the more general region”, including what he said “seems to be a policy of systemic persecution of groups such as specifically Christian converts, but also atheists, or non-believers, and Gonabadi dervishes”. 

“We are seeing not only in Iran, but in neighbouring countries also, a rise of nationalism, which has a religious tint, and this means a polarisation, the use of identity politics by certain politicians around ‘majority’ identity,” he said. “… Who are at the receiving end of this situation, where majoritarian nationalism has a religious tint? Minorities. Minorities are identified as the ‘others’, as ‘foreign’, ‘different’, a ‘danger’.” 

The special rapporteur said that while the trend wasn’t “unique to Iran, it is extremely serious in Iran, and we have to understand this more general context to try to find solutions. What can we do? … Are we doing enough? Are we even doing anything serious in terms of the international community?” 

He added that he felt it was time for the UN to “recognise where we’re failing”. 

“And in my view the United Nations is failing,” he said, “by not recognising sufficiently where some of the most serious, brutal abusive violations of human rights have occurred. And this is with minorities, including religious or belief minorities in many parts of the world.” 

Mr de Varennes concluded by highlighting his recommendation for a new legal framework and treaty for minorities “that actually identifies, clarifies, and tries to protect the human rights of those who are the most vulnerable right now, the most marginalised, and these are minorities, including religious or belief minorities in Iran, and other minorities in many parts of the world”. 

“Some would say that it’s not realistic, governments will never accept a new treaty to protect minorities,” he said. “But that should not prevent us from trying to improve the protection of those who cannot protect themselves – minorities, including in countries such as Iran.” 

Victor Bet-Tamraz

Pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for leading a house-church, was the next to speak, beginning by holding up a copy of a Persian-language Bible.

“This is a Persian Bible, which is illegal in Iran,” he said. “If you have it, that is a crime for you.” 

Pastor Victor explained that he had pastored both Assyrian and Persian-speaking communities for over 40 years, saying: “As a member of recognised minority groups, we faced significant limitation, discrimination, control, and constant monitoring regarding … our religious practices. 

“Two weeks after the revolution in 1979, the extreme persecution of Farsi-speaking pastors began. Convert pastors and leaders were targeted, attacked, and in some cases murdered

“When I started my ministry, like any other pastor [in Iran], I was obligated to cooperate with the government, providing them with detailed information and reports on our church activities, [though] I did not comply. With time, things took a turn for the worse. My situation escalated as I faced increase interrogation, close monitoring and threats to my family, especially to my children. 

“During one of my interrogations, with a smirk on his face, my interrogator told me ‘Children [go] missing every day. Car accidents happen to most of the people,’ while reminding me of the traumatic experiences [of] MOIS [Ministry of Intelligence] officers trying to kidnap my teenage child. 

“In 2009 the government shut down my church, followed by the closure of other Pentecostal Assyrian churches. Later, during a private Christmas gathering in 2014, I was arrested and held in solitary confinement for 65 days for a crime I did not commit. 

“My charges were ‘acting against national security’, ‘evangelism’, and ‘promoting terrorism’. Back then, no-one thought that the government would close down all our churches, and arrest pastors and leaders. No-one thought they could get away with persecuting Assyrian and Armenian leaders [so] obviously. 

“And yet, subsequently, almost all evangelical Persian-speaking churches have been closed. And because of this, today evangelical Assyrian Christians and Pentecostals, as well as Christian converts, have no place to worship; you can’t imagine! 

“My wife and I, we were eventually forced to flee Iran, facing a combined 15 years in prison only for continuing to minister to convert Christians, as should be our right under the international covenant. Instead, we were arrested and labelled ‘spies’ and ‘terrorists’. 

He concluded: “We want our churches back, our charges to be dropped, and our members to have the right to gather and to worship in our own church buildings.” 

Shamiram Issavi

Pastor Victor’s wife, Shamiram, who was sentenced to five years in prison on trumped-up charges of “spying”, was next to speak.

“As my husband said, it is difficult to remember and to mention what has happened to us as a family,” she said. “I remember when I was in the midst of all this persecution, I wrote a letter to the United Nations. But due to the fear of making the situation much worse, I didn’t send it. 

“You know, for 44 years, the Iranian government has [used] fear as an arm to control its own citizens, and to impose its own ideology and its belief. Particularly the women are vulnerable in this situation; they are … humiliated, they are discriminated. But I’m so happy that today I am the witness of widespread protests, and the people, especially the young generation, who are breaking the wall of fear… And for me, now is the time [for] fear to go away and people [to] stand for their rights.

“Since September last year we saw these widespread protests, following the death of Mahsa Amini. But I’m sad to say this such treatment is not new for me. From the very beginning of the revolution, we are the witnesses of harassment, violation, discrimination, for women and for most of the people. 

“As a Christian, working in the Bible Society and later on ministering in the church, I am the witness of this discriminating behaviour towards women. And it seems that we are forced to believe this is the normal life that we have to live. When standing for our rights, women will be labelled as ‘prostitutes’, as ‘low class’, ‘uneducated’, and sometimes even the ‘spies of the Western countries’. Nobody listens to what they really want. 

“As a Christian, if we ask for our legal rights and freedom, we will be labelled as ‘poisonous fungus and cancerous tumours who should be operated on and separated’ from their own community. This is the [kind of] public statement that our political leaders are making. And if you refuse [to comply], as my husband and myself did, we have to be silenced, by whatever means they want to find.

“In the time of interrogation, it [seemed] funny to [them to] humiliate me, to break me down. They said that all my activities, my ministry, my faith, and the way that we have worked with the people [was] just to give them the freedom to [explore] their sexual desire. Nothing more than that. And [that] my faith is nothing and is compared to like worshipping a chimney or a dog! 

“The Iranian government has a track record of lying, deceiving, arresting Christians based on lies. Without any solid proof, they put them in the prison. 

“You know, when my son was arrested, I nearly had a heart attack, because I heard that their accusation is that they have arrested him in an armed gang opposing the government. And the truth was that my son and his family and his friends were only in a picnic gathering together, and having fun with each other. 

“This was the accusation. And they knew that this is baseless, but yet he was in the prison, and he was charged. 

“We had to send our daughter away from us, because she was threatened for her life. These are not simple [things] to bear. That is why I understand fully why the mothers of our country now are in pain, and having a difficult time when they see their children are in the prison, without any real charges. The accusations are all lies about these people; they just want a normal life. And I am not here speaking about myself, I am here speaking about the truth of Iranian people who are suffering [at the hands of] the government. 

“I ask the United Nations to publicly call on the Iranian government to uphold the right [of] freedom of religion or belief for every citizen, whatever they want to believe, and to hold Iran accountable for its inhuman treatment, of women rights in particular, and for all the people of my country. And this is the [word] that today is [being spoken] in the streets and everywhere, and all over the world, that freedom is for women, freedom and life. This is what we are asking for every human being back in my country.”

Mansour Borji

Mr Borji holds up a photograph of Sara Ahmadi and Homayoun Zhaveh, who are serving a combined 10 years in prison for being part of a house-church.

Following the testimonies of Victor and Shamiram, Article18’s director, Mansour Borji, outlined the major findings of the joint report, as well as holding up photographs of several of those sentenced or serving sentences in 2022, including Iranian-Armenian pastors Joseph Shahbazian and Anooshavan Avedian, and Christian converts Mina Khajavi and Malihe Nazari, Sara Ahmadi and Homayoun Zhaveh, and Yasser Akbari.

“Yasser Akbari’s handicapped child sadly died last year,” Mr Borji explained. “He was only given a few days to attend the funeral – only after the funeral had taken place. He still continues to serve that 10-year prison sentence for holding Bible studies.” 

Mr Borji added: “Religious minorities, including Christians, continue to be deprived of their rights to practise a faith of their own choosing, in violation of Iran’s obligation as a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [ICCPR].

“In the year of the death of Mahsa Amini, a young lady from the city of my own birthplace, when Iranians poured out on the streets demanding justice, the report argues that the protests at their core are a cry for freedom – the freedom of Iranian people to live in a way that corresponds with their beliefs.” 

Gloria Lecesse

Finally, Ms Lecesse from Open Doors International highlighted a few of the report’s recommendations.

Firstly, Ms Lecesse called on Iran to “uphold the right to freedom of religion or belief for every individual, regardless of their ethnic or linguistic group, and including converts”, amending Article 13 of the Constitution so as “to recognise freedom of religion or belief for all, and not just for a selected number of minority groups”. 

“Currently, Article 13 only recognises three groups – Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians as the only religious minorities legally allowed to exist within the limits of the law, which is a much broader limitation than what international human rights law allows for restricting freedom of religion or belief,” she explained. 

“The Iranian government interprets these three recognised minorities to refer only to historical ethnic minority communities in Iran, which is, for example, the Assyrian and Armenian Christian communities. And they are allowed to exist because they constitute a historical heritage for the nation, and as long as they operate within the very restricted interpretation of freedom of religion or belief that the Iranian government is allowing them to operate within. That is really more of a matter of cultural heritage rather than faith. So these minorities, for example, have a lot of limitations, and Victor has been telling you a bit about them. For example, they’re not allowed to have a Bible in Persian or any religious literature in Persian, or to hold a religious service in Persian as well. So they have to be very careful about what they do and how they do it, or they will be harassed, persecuted and imprisoned by the government. 

“And all other minorities, for example, the Bahai, remain unrecognised by the law and afforded no rights under the constitution. So, legally they’re not even allowed to exist and to believe in their own God and in their own religion. So it is imperative that Iran amends Article 13 of the Constitution as to uphold freedom of religion or belief, as enshrined by Article 18 of the ICCPR, which is a treaty that Iran has ratified, without reservation. 

Secondly, Ms Lecesse called on Iran to “cease the criminalisation of house-church organisation and membership, and to allow Christians of all ethnic backgrounds, and everyone really, to worship freely and collectively”, which she said was “a natural consequence of implementing the first recommendation”.

“Freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief is an integral part of freedom of religion or belief, and it cannot be confined to an official church building,” Ms Lecesse said. “International human rights law allows for individuals to worship freely wherever they wish. So if they want to meet up in a house and pray together, international human rights law allows them to do that, and Iran is legally bound to respect these standards.”

Finally, Ms Lecesse called on Iran to “release immediately and unconditionally all Christians detained on charges that are related to their peaceful religious activities, and [to] stop using criminal code provisions … to unjustly detain religious minority faith adherents”. 

She also called on Iran to allow Mr Rehman to visit the country, and to “fully cooperate with the recently established fact-funding mission tasked to investigate the deteriorating situation of human rights in the country since the start of the protests in September 2022”. 

Ms Lecesse concluded: “Shamiram described a situation where the government wants to normalise, almost, this pattern of systematic violations of human rights, and we’re just not going to allow them to do that. So we’ll keep speaking up, until all Iranians have their freedom, inherent dignity and rights respected.”

SR’s response

Before moving on to a time of Q&A, Mr Rehman responded to the comments made by reading out Article 18 of the ICCPR, to which Iran is a signatory:

“Article 18.1 says: ‘Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice. And the freedom, either individually or in community with others, and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, and teaching.’ 

“So the key points are really quite central for our understanding: that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, and everyone has the right to have a religion, to adopt another religion, of his or her choice, without any coercion,” he said. 

“And these are what we call ‘non-derogable’. You cannot derogate from that. Whatever religion or faith I choose for myself, there must not be any interference; the state cannot say, ‘Well, you know, there are public security issues, national security.’ This is my choice! And this is very important for all states to recognise, including Iran. 

“There are limitations imposed only on the manifestation of religion. And even here, it is very important that we look at those limitations, but a key point before I go into that is Article 18.2, which says ‘No-one shall be subjected to coercion, which will impair his freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of his choice.’ 

“Now, all of what we have discussed is a consistent coercion and impairment, and I regret to say that this is happening in Iran.”

Mr Rehman concluded: “Article 18.3 says, ‘Freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law.’ So it has to be established first in law. And then these limitations are only legitimate if they’re necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals and fundamental rights and freedoms of others. So all of these charges which we have heard about ‘national security’, that is illegitimate; that violates international obligations which Iran has adhered to.”


Diane Alai of the Bahai International Community.

The first of two comments from the audience came from Diane Alai, the UN representative of the Bahai International Community, who thanked Victor and Shamiram for their testimonies, saying it was “very painful for all religious minorities to hear what all religious minorities are suffering, because we’re all together in this in the Islamic Republic of Iran”. 

“And it’s such a shame,” she added. “There is a film that was done by IranWire that is called ‘The Cost of Discrimination’. And it shows what this discrimination costs not only to the individual but also to Iran, that it deprives Iran of the capacity to benefit from the contribution of members of those minorities.

“So in all solidarity, I hope for an Iran where everybody, as you mentioned, Special Rapporteur, will have the right to practise and worship in whichever way they wish.” 

Finally, a citizen of Azerbaijan said it was “really disturbing” to hear the testimonies of Victor and Shamiram and added that he was “a bit surprised to hear” Iranian-Armenians were also under pressure.

Mr Borji replied by referencing the two Armenian pastors sentenced last year to 10 years in prison, adding: “As long as they are not using [the] Persian language as the language of their worship [and] Christian literature, they could be immune [from] certain pressures from the government, but they are not fully entitled to their rights as citizens. 

“For instance, the Armenians cannot become a president or a judge, or take high office, and you can take that discrimination to the extreme of imprisonment if they violate Iran’s unwritten codes of practice.”

The event can be watched in full by clicking on the video below or visiting the YouTube page of the World Evangelical Alliance: