Iranian media rebuffs US’s religious freedom criticism

Iranian media rebuffs US’s religious freedom criticism

US President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a ‘Protect Religious Freedom’ event in New York last month. (Twitter @SecPompeo)

Pro-government media in Iran have launched a fresh propaganda drive in response to repeated criticism from the US over Iran’s religious freedom failings.

On Saturday, the state-backed IRNA website published an article about the restoration of an historic church in north-western Iran.

Then yesterday fellow state-backed Press TV posted a video on its YouTube page, calling the claims from the US “biased and baseless”.

The IRNA article said foreign visitors to the church “could see Armenians’ freedom of action to perform religious practices and share the experience with foreigners around the world”, and that this was a “very suitable way to combat the enemies’ anti-Iran propaganda about freedom of ethnic minorities to perform their rituals”.

Meanwhile, the Press TV video included an interview with the Assyrian Christian representative of the Iranian parliament, Yonathan Betkolia, who, not for the first time, claimed Christians in Iran enjoy “full freedom”.

A Jewish lawmaker also interviewed (Jews and Christians, alongside Zoroastrians, are the three “recognised” religious minorities in Iran) went as far as to claim that “religious minorities have more freedom in Iran than anywhere else in the world”.

The Press TV report focused on the “at least 600 churches and over 300,000 Christians in Iran” and noted that, although Shia Islam is the official religion of Iran, “the constitution stipulates that investigation into individual beliefs is forbidden and no-one may be harmed or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief”.

Yet what both reports failed to recognise is that the relative freedom enjoyed by recognised religious minorities, including Christians from an Armenian and Assyrian background, does not extend to others, such as converts to Christianity – whose conversions are not recognised – and members of the Baha’i faith.

And even “recognised” Christians are not permitted to proselytise, and those who do can face prosecution, such as in the case of Assyrian pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz, who is facing 10 years in prison for pastoring Christian converts.

The Jewish lawmaker interviewed by Press TV invited US officials to “come and see for themselves that there are many churches and synagogues in Iran”, but what he failed to observe is that the UN’s own Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran – who in his July report specifically highlighted the problems faced by Christian converts – is yet to be granted access to the country.

Such reports from state-backed media are fairly frequent. Last month, Article18 highlighted another Press TV report about the restoration of a Tehran church, which came as the Tehran City Council withdrew tax-exemption status from the city’s churches and synagogues.

The Trump administration has often highlighted Iran’s religious freedom failings, including specific mention of the case of Victor Bet-Tamraz, and has invited his daughter, Dabrina, to speak at several events.

Most recently, in late September, Dabrina spoke at a fringe event at the UN General Assembly in New York, where she noted that since the beginning of last year more than 200 Christians have been arrested in Iran and are “either now in prison, serving lengthy prison sentences, or awaiting trials”.