‘Let’s change the narrative’ – religious freedom advocates agree collaboration is key

‘Let’s change the narrative’ – religious freedom advocates agree collaboration is key

Article18’s Mansour Borji, Fred Petrossian and Kiaa Aalipour were among the panelists for the live Clubhouse discussion on Saturday.

Religious-freedom advocates from different minority groups were united on the need for increased collaboration during a compelling live discussion on the Clubhouse social-media app on Saturday.

The discussion, set up and hosted by broadcaster Elham Binai, featured three Article18 representatives, Bahai International Community’s Simin Fahandej, and Marjan Keypour from the Alliance for Rights of All Minorities (ARAM).

And all the panelists, as well as guest contributors including former prisoners of conscience, were in agreement that working together is the key if real change is to be achieved.

“The Iranian government have all the propaganda tools at their behest – they can change public opinion, they can twist the story and offer their own narrative,” said Article18’s Mansour Borji. “But hearing the truth … just making that known to everyone is one way to to combat that and bring about justice.

“Meetings like this, when we can sit together and talk about our joint concerns, is one way forward to bringing about a united voice and hopefully making some good changes.”

Article18’s Fred Petrossian added: “I think it’s very important that religious minorities – and people who are involved with religious minorities and human rights concerns regarding these communities – come together in order to talk, to exchange ideas, to brainstorm and coordinate some activities, because if each community stays at its corner, I think things become much more difficult for everybody to do.”

Simin Fahandej concurred, saying: “I hope that we will continue to have these types of conversations among ourselves and among others who are interested, as these types of conversations help us to find a common ground between us.”

Marjan Keypour said that “listening to one another” and “finding common ground about our mutual suffering” is the “only way that maybe we can start to shift the institutionalised system of discrimination and hierarchy of power of the Islamic Republic”. 

And Article18’s Kiaa Aalipour said that he was “very happy to be in the same room with our Baha’i friends, Jewish friends, and other minorities here, and I really hope that we can have more representatives from other minorities as well, because we have a lot in common, and it would be wonderful if we can bridge the gaps somehow and start to [join] our hands together to raise our voices.”

Guest contributor Farshid Fathi, a Christian convert who spent five years in prison, also expressed his joy at how the conversation had brought together activists from different religious minorities.

“I’m so happy to see Baha’i friends here,” he said, “because we [religious minorities] should help each other in that way. My best friends [in prison] were Baha’i people, and even now, everywhere I go, I try to be their voice as well – not just for the Christians.” 

‘Don’t forget us!’

Mary Mohammadi (bottom left) and Farshi Fathi (third row, second left) both contributed to the live discussion.

And after each of the panelists had shared examples of how religious minorities in Iran are oppressed, it was Farshid and another guest contributor – fellow former prisoner of conscience Mary Mohammadi – who brought these comments to life.

Farshid explained how he had spent 361 days in solitary confinement and “eight months without any interrogation – just [left alone] in a very small room”.

He added that the curtailing of his religious freedom even extended into his treatment in prison, when he was brought in front of an Islamic cleric to be persuaded to return to Islam.

“He was trying to convert me to Islam and said, ‘If you become a Muslim, we’re gonna release you’,” Farshi explained. “It’s not just converting [that creates problems], but even [afterwards] when we want to have our Christian life.” 

Farshid’s contribution ended with a question: “How can we raise up our voice louder to the world to not let the crackdown of a regime like Iran shut us down?

“The government doesn’t like to accept us [Christian converts] as a [part of] society, even though the most conservative people … believe at least there are 500,000 Christian [converts] like me, but they treat us like we do not exist.

“So how can you help us, or is there any advice that we register ourselves as [part of] society? … We have children, and if our people die, we we want to bury them as a Christian, and all this kind of stuff … How can you help us to raise up our voice louder?”

And the discussion ended with the contribution of 22-year-old Mary Mohammadi, who explained how being jailed at the age of 19 – just for belonging to a house-church – inspired her to launch a campaign (“KHMA”) for Christian converts like her and Farshid to be allowed to worship somewhere.

“There are lots of Christians in jail right now because of participating in house-churches, because we don’t have any official churches,” Mary said. “The government doesn’t let us have any official churches, and so we are forced to participate in house-churches, and it’s a reason for the government to sentence us to jail, fines, to deny our education, work, and it’s made our lives very hard.” 

Mary, who also explained how she continues to be denied education after being kicked out of university, called on the international community to “pay attention to this situation and don’t forget us”.

“We are human beings, and we have an indescribable situation,” she said, adding that she couldn’t understand why some people seemed to be “indifferent about people in Iran, who don’t have any obvious rights”. 

“If we call ourselves human beings,” she said, “it’s not [possible] to be silent about people in Iran – especially [regarding] religious freedom.”