‘Iran’s religious minorities facing greatest threat since revolution’

‘Iran’s religious minorities facing greatest threat since revolution’

Clockwise from top-left: Afshin Sajedi (IOPHR), Sharon Nazarian (ADL), Mansour Borji (Article18), Alireza Nader (FDD), Ebrahim Ahrari Khalaf (Kalemeh TV), and Farhad Sabetan (BIC).

Iran’s religious minorities are today facing the greatest threat to their existence since the 1979 revolution, according to one expert.

Alireza Nader, senior fellow at the US-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), was speaking at a recent virtual event focused on the Islamic Republic’s attitudes towards different religious groups, hosted by the International Organisation to Preserve Human Rights (IOPHR) as part of the third annual Ministerial to Advance Freedom of Religion or Belief.

Mr Nader referenced the recent flogging of Christian convert Zaman (Saheb) Fadaie as he suggested that “today, in 2020, religious minorities are perhaps facing the greatest danger to their existence since the 1979 revolution”. 

“Every day we see reports of severe persecution of Christians,” he said. “… I don’t think that since the revolution – and probably the 80s – that there’s been this much repression against Iran’s religious minorities, and in particular Christians, but also [Sufi] dervishes, Baha’is, Sunnis … and Jewish Iranians.”

Article18’s advocacy director, Mansour Borji, was another of the guest speakers, explaining how Iran’s repression of Christians includes both recognised ethnic Assyrian and Armenian Christians as well as unrecognised converts to Christianity.

Mr Borji used the example of Iranian-Assyrian pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz, forced to flee Iran in August this year, to show the pressure facing members of the recognised Christian community who do not comply with the regime’s prohibition on evangelising to Muslims.

“But even those members of the Iranian recognised minorities who choose not to evangelise do not enjoy the same rights as their Muslim compatriots,” he explained, “whether it’s inheritance – where one Muslim relative is entitled to inherit everything at the expense of his non-Muslim family member – or employment, where non-Muslims are prohibited from many government jobs or a position in the army, despite being forced to partake in military service, or testimony in court, where the testimony of non-Muslims cannot be accepted against that of a Muslim.” 

However, Mr Borji acknowledged that it is Iran’s unrecognised minorities, like the Baha’is and Christian converts who “suffer most”.

He cited the example of the 17 Christian prisoners of conscience inside Tehran’s Evin Prison at the moment – all of them converts – as well as the recent flogging of Saheb Fadaie and fellow convert Mohammad Reza (Youhan) Omidi for drinking wine with Communion, and the decision to remove an adopted two-year-old girl from her parents only because they are Christian converts.

Another speaker, IOPHR’s Afshin Sajedi, noted that several converts have been “brutally murdered” since the revolution, adding that while “religion-change is still a crime in some parts of the world, Iran is the only country where conversion is punishable by death”. 

Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the execution of a Christian convert, Rev Hossein Soodmand, for his “apostasy”, and while he remains the only Iranian Christian to have been killed on such a charge, others have been sentenced to death – only to see the ruling overturned after an outcry – and seven have been killed extrajudicially since the 1979 revolution.

Ebrahim Ahrari Khalaf, representing Iran’s Sunni community, said the regime had stigmatised different minority groups over the past 42 years, including Baha’is, Christian converts and Sufis, and that through this “they have instilled animosity among different populations and different groups in Iran.”

How should the international community respond?

Mr Nader said he feared “the state repression in Iran is going to become much, much worse”, and that he had “zero hope this regime will reform itself”.

Instead, he called on the international community – and in particular the new US administration – not to “ignore human rights” as part of any negotiations with Iran.

The other panelists concurred, with Baha’i representative Farhad Sabetan saying it was “absolutely imperative for the international community to not sacrifice or ignore human rights norms and standards for the sake of trade”.

“It very much should be the policy of the international community to ensure that their relationship with the Iranian government is in fact very closely tied to observing human rights,” he said. “And it is my understanding that the Iranian government does care about international opinion, and therefore the international community should make sure that human rights is on top of the agenda in any form of relationship with Iran, and of course is not sacrificed.”

Jewish representative Sharon Nazarian called for greater collaboration among the different minority groups, saying: “We can come together and speak with one voice about the atrocities being committed by the Islamic Republic on its own citizens on a daily basis. And then we hold our own governments in the US and in Europe responsible for bearing pressure on the regime, and not always putting their economic interests ahead of human rights issues.”

Mr Borji suggested the best way to collaborate may be to focus on the right of every Iranian to choose what they believe.

“I think the right to religious freedom – as very correctly defined in the preamble of the international declaration of human rights – is a fundamental right,” he said, “not just a matter of concern for religious minorities. It is for all people of all faiths – whether majority or minority – and that’s where we need to adopt the language everybody would understand. 

“If we are here talking about the rights of the Sunnis, Baha’is, Jews, Christians… It’s a right of every Iranian to choose what they believe, or not to believe at all. And that’s something that we can collectively try and focus our efforts towards.”