Islamic Republic delegation quizzed by UN experts on compliance with international law

Islamic Republic delegation quizzed by UN experts on compliance with international law

The delegation was led by Reza Najafi (centre), flanked here by judicial adviser Khosrow Hakimi (right) and sanctioned parliamentarian Zohreh Elahian (left).

Iran’s violations of the rights of religious minorities, including Christians, was one of the issues raised by a panel of UN experts this week as they questioned a delegation from the Islamic Republic on its compliance with international law.

Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Iran has ratified, calls for states to provide citizens with “freedom of thought, conscience and religion”, including freedom to “have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice”, and 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”.

A panel of experts from the UN’s Human Rights Committee, which monitors states’ compliance with the ICCPR, assessed the Islamic Republic’s performance during two three-hour-long sessions on 9 and 10 October.

Article18 submitted a joint report to the committee ahead of the assessment, noting the “multiple layers” of religious-freedom violations experienced by Christians and other religious minorities in Iran, and suggesting a number of questions for the committee to pose to the Islamic Republic. 

Among the suggested questions, we asked the committee to query how “cases of minority faith adherents being tried on national security grounds for the legitimate practice of their faith”, and Article 13 of Iran’s constitution – which recognises only Zoroastrians, Christians and Jews – are consistent with the ICCPR.

We also asked for clarity on how Persian-speakers, “whatever their ethnicity, may freely gather to worship as envisaged by Article 18 of the Covenant”, and how many Christian converts are currently detained and facing charges under the amended Articles 499 and 500 of the penal code.

Finally, we suggested that the delegation was pressed for a response on the question of where Persian-speaking Christians might worship, free from fear of arrest or imprisonment, and whether Iran has plans to revise its civil code to allow non-Muslims to inherit from Muslims, or Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men.

What did the committee ask?

Korean committee member Changrok Soh, during the second session on 10 October, asked for a response from the Islamic Republic to “extensive reports that recognised and unrecognised religions alike, including Baha’is, Christians, Jews, Gonabadi dervishes, and Sunni [Muslims], among others, have faced state-sanctioned human rights violations, such as harassment, arbitrary arrest, and detention, torture, and confiscation of property solely for [practising] their faith”. 

“Please comment on the reported state-sanctioned human rights violations against religious minorities, and how such actions are compatible with the state party’s obligation under the covenant,” he added. 

Mr Soh also noted how, contrary to the claims of the Islamic Republic, “apostasy continues to be considered a hadd offence”, punishable by death.

“With this in mind, what legislative and executive measures does the state party [Iran] have in place to guarantee the rights of freedom of religion for religious minorities, including those not recognised by the constitution?” he asked.

Mr Soh also made reference to Articles 499 and 500 of the penal code, stating that “the new amendment[s] … now allows for further suppression of religious freedom and freedom of expression, especially for religious minorities”. 

“As such,” he said, “I wish the delegation to provide the committee with detailed statistics on those convicted under the amended articles 499 bis and 500 bis of the penal code, and to clarify whether there are plans to repeal such amendments.” 

Mr Soh concluded by highlighting the “continued violations of rights and discriminations” suffered by the Baha’i community, and asked what measures were being taken to ensure their protection. 

How did Iran respond?

Iranian-Armenian MP Ara Shaverdian (left) responded to the questions regarding religious freedom.

Iranian-Armenian MP Ara Shaverdian was put forward by the delegation to respond to the questions relating to Article 18 of the covenant, but did not specifically name any of the unrecognised minority groups, such as Baha’is or Christian converts, only saying that Iran “strongly denied” allegations regarding “the certain cult which is not considered a religion” – a term often used by Islamic Republic spokespeople to refer both to the Baha’is and also members of house-churches.

Mr Shaverdian also did not respond specifically to the question regarding apostasy, while in response to the questions regarding Articles 499 and 500, he only said the laws related to “sectarian and religious hate-mongering, which has been criminalised in different countries”.

“The laws of the country are done free of any discrimination and [people are] convicted [only] because of the committing of crimes based on the prevailing laws,” he added.

He did not mention that several Christians have been imprisoned under the amended laws, including his fellow Iranian-Armenian, Anooshavan Avedian, who is serving a 10-year prison sentence for engaging in “propaganda contrary to and disturbing to the holy religion of Islam”.

Mr Shaverdian instead chose to focus on how each of the recognised religious groups, including Christians of Armenian and Assyrian descent, have parliamentary representation, and listed the number of places of worship provided for each of them.

“Iran is committed to the preservation and protection of religious minorities, in line with this covenant,” he said. “Christians have 380 churches, Jews have 16 synagogues, and Zoroastrians have 78 temples.” 

He added that there are also 15 associations for Zoroastrians, 30 each for Armenians and Assyrians, and 12 for Jews.

He did not mention that the hundreds of thousands of Persian-speaking Christians in Iran have no place to worship.

As Article18 has reported previously, it is common practice for the Assyrian and Armenian representatives of Iran’s parliament to be put forward to defend the policies of the Islamic Republic, and this is not the first time that Mr Shaverdian has made such remarks.

Mr Shaverdian later posted on X, formerly Twitter, that he had “emphasized our unwavering adherence” to the ICCPR, including Article 18, and “noted Iran’s resolute commitment to upholding the rights of religious minorities, deeply embedded in our constitution (Articles 12, 13, 14, 19)”.

Follow-up questions

In his follow-up to Mr Shaverdian’s comments, Mr Soh said he wondered whether there might have been an issue with the translation, as he “couldn’t get [much of the] information that I asked”, including “regarding freedom of conscience and religious belief”, and specifically the “detailed statistics on those convicted under the amended articles 499 bis and 500 bis of the penal code”. 

Mr Soh added that he would “appreciate if you can provide [the answers] in written format, so that we can review [them]”. 

As the meeting concluded, chairperson Tania Maria Abdo Rocholl told the Iranian delegation they had up to 48 hours to send in any “complementary information”.

Other elements of the covenant queried by the committee included reported violations of the rights to life, freedom of movement, privacy, access to justice, freedom of expression, peaceful protest, and freedom of association, as well as alleged violence against women and gender inequality, corruption, and the use of torture.

Several victims of rights violations were specifically named by the committee members, including Armita Geravand, who is in a coma following an incident reminiscent of that which claimed the life of Mahsa Amini last year, but the only victim mentioned by name by an Islamic Republic spokesperson was Ms Amini, and only for judicial spokesperson Mehdi Hadi to claim that her death “had absolutely no relation to the use of force of any kind”.

The head of the delegation of the Islamic Republic, Reza Najafi from Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, concluded by professing the Islamic Republic’s “unwavering commitment to upholding the principles enshrined in the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”. 

But judicial adviser Khosrow Hakimi, who organised the delegation’s responses to the committee, said at the outset that he “want[ed] to emphasise” that the provisions of the covenant would only be implemented if “compatible with the resolutions of [Iran’s] constitution”.

You can watch the entire sessions below.