‘End criminalisation of peaceful expression of faith,’ UN rapporteur tells Iran

‘End criminalisation of peaceful expression of faith,’ UN rapporteur tells Iran

Javaid Rehman (UN Photo/Jean Marc Ferré/Flickr) 

Iran’s failure to uphold freedom of religion or belief is a central concern of the latest report by the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran.

Javaid Rehman notes that, as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Iran is obliged to provide its citizens with “freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of their choice, or not to have or adopt a religion, and the freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest their religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching”.

He points out that, while Christians are a recognised religious minority, alongside Jews and Zoroastrians, such recognition is not afforded to Muslims who convert to Christianity.

“Even for the recognised religious minorities, there is no provision under the legal system of the Islamic Republic of Iran permitting conversions from Islam, which is considered apostasy,” he writes. “This puts Christian converts from Islam at risk of persecution. Apostasy is not codified as an Islamic Penal Code offence, but conversion from Islam is punishable by death.”

While in reality it is rare for converts to Christianity to be sentenced to death, Mr Rehman notes that the possibility remains and has precedent in the case of pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, who was sentenced to death in 2010. 

Meanwhile, as converts are “not granted access to officially recognised Christian churches,” Mr Rehman says this “forces them to gather clandestinely in informal ‘house churches’”, attendance of which can lead to “arrests, detention and repeated interrogations about their faith”.

“Most Christian converts who have been arrested and detained have been charged with ‘propaganda against the system’, ‘propagation of Zionist evangelical Christianity’ or ‘administering and managing the home churches’,” Mr Rehman adds.

He cites the recent example of Abdolreza (Matthias) Ali-Haghnejad, one of nine Christians arrested in Rasht in early 2019, and also the case of pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz, who is facing a ten-year prison sentence, and his wife and son, who were also given prison sentences because of their Christian activities.

Mr Rehman adds that converts have been “subjected to sexual abuse and ill treatment” during detention. 

“One young woman had reportedly been repeatedly subjected to sexual assault by a policeman, leaving her traumatized and requiring treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder in a psychiatric hospital,” he writes. “In a separate case, a young male Christian convert detained in Tehran was allegedly hit with wooden sticks and his head banged against a wall.”

Mr Rehman’s very first recommendation to the Supreme Leader is an amendment to Article 13 of Iran’s Constitution, such that “all religious minorities and those who do not hold any religious beliefs are recognized and able to fully enjoy the right to freedom of religion or belief”.

He calls for amendments to “all articles in the Islamic Penal Code that discriminate on the basis of religious or belief”, and for due process and fair-trial guarantees, “including access to a lawyer of their choosing” to be afforded to all persons accused of a crime. (Matthias and four of his co-defendants recently had their bail amounts increased tenfold after insisting on being allowed to choose their own lawyer.)

Mr Rehman also calls on Iran’s government to “refrain from targeting members of recognized and non-recognized religious minorities with national security-related charges”, to “refrain from persecuting peaceful religious gatherings in private homes and other premises, refrain from convicting religious leaders and cease the monitoring of citizens on account of their religious identity”,  and to “end the criminalisation of the peaceful expression of faith”.

He also wants places of worship for all religious minorities to be opened, including “new churches throughout the country”.

Mr Rehman had pledged last month to look into the treatment of Christian converts in Iran “very seriously”, saying he was “personally very concerned” about the issue.