Renewed fears over parliamentary bill that threatens Iran’s religious minorities

Renewed fears over parliamentary bill that threatens Iran’s religious minorities

There are renewed fears over a parliamentary bill that threatens to facilitate the further repression of Iran’s religious minorities.

The bill was initially passed by the parliament in May but sent back for amendments by the Guardian Council a month later. 

And now, according to advocacy organisation ARTICLE 19, that process has been repeated, with the parliament passing an amended version on 1 November, only for the Guardian Council to call for further changes on 25 November.

The bill is understood now to be back with the parliament for a third time, and it appears clear there is an undimmed will to see it become law.

What does the bill say?

The bill proposes additions to articles 499 and 500 of the Islamic Penal Code – already two of the most commonly used laws in cases against Christians – which would provide law enforcers with even greater scope for bringing charges on vaguely-defined grounds.

Articles 499 and 500 relate to membership of and support for (“propaganda”) groups deemed “hostile” to the regime.

These seven Christian converts from Bushehr are among those to have been sentenced this year for house-church membership, for which they were convicted under Article 500 of “propaganda against the state”.

The proposed amendments seek to add extra wording to these articles, such as “propaganda contrary to Islam” – whether in the “real or virtual sphere” – and “deviant psychological manipulation” by “sects”.

According to Bahar Saba from ARTICLE 19, the latest changes to the bill are only semantic, for example replacing the words “insults to divine religions or Islamic branches” with “directs explicit curses at divine religions”.

The proposed punishment for these ill-defined “crimes” would include imprisonment, flogging, fines, and even the death penalty.

Christian converts are regularly charged with membership of “hostile” groups for belonging to house-churches, while Iran regularly contrasts its recognised Armenian and Assyrian Christian populations with the Christianity practised in house-churches, which is considered “deviant”, influenced by the West and Israel, and akin to a “sect”.


Reacting to the original bill, human rights lawyer Hossein Ahmadiniaz, whose clients have included the jailed Christian convert Nasser Navard Gol-Tapeh, told Article18 it would “facilitate the repression and punishment of Christian converts and others belonging to unrecognised religious groups”.

Hossein Ahmadiniaz (Twitter @H_Ahmadiniaz)

“The law should protect citizens, including Christian converts and Baha’is, against the government,” he said. “But in Iran the law has become a tool to justify the government’s violent treatment of converts and other unrecognised minorities.”

Meanwhile, Hamid Gharagozloo from the International Organisation to Preserve Human Rights (IOPHR) said: “By making it a crime to be part of a sect, and banning a group as a ‘sect’, it gives them an open hand to crush any form of uprising or dissatisfaction with the government… Any form of defiance will be labelled as a ‘sect’, and then it will be punishable by law.”

Even after the bill was returned by the Guardian Council for the first time, Article18’s advocacy director Mansour Borji warned it would likely return in a “perhaps more minimal form, but still the purpose of this legislation – which was tightening control – could be served by using a more legal language that would have it pass through the parliament and the Guardian Council.

“Therefore,” he added, “we shouldn’t let our guards down and relax, but must monitor the behaviour of the lawmakers and policymakers in Iran, who show an increasing pattern of abuse of religious freedom, because such things are not rare and can happen at anytime with an overwhelmingly conservative parliament and a government that on a daily basis is reported to have violated human rights.

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