A dark picture of religious freedom in Iran

August 2, 2012

WASHINGTON, United States — In a report released Monday, the United States painted a dark picture of religious freedom in Iran, documenting how the government there oppresses the followers of virtually every religious minority in the country, restricting their religious activities, limiting their economic prospects, and imprisoning them when they tell others about their beliefs.

"Government rhetoric and actions created a threatening atmosphere for nearly all non-Shia religious groups, most notably for Baha'is, as well as for Sufi Muslims, evangelical Christians, Jews, and Shia groups that did not share the government's official religious views," said the 2011 annual US Department of State's report on International Religious Freedom in its section on Iran.

"Baha'i and Christian groups reported arbitrary arrests, prolonged detentions, and confiscation of property. During the year, government-controlled broadcast and print media intensified negative campaigns against religious minorities, particularly Baha'is.

"All religious minorities suffered varying degrees of officially sanctioned discrimination, particularly in the areas of employment, education, and housing. Baha'is continued to experience expulsions from, or denial of admission to, universities," the report said.

Issued annually since 2001, the report analyzes the status of religious freedom around the world, examining progress or regression in every nation outside the US.

The report gave special attention this year to the impact of political and demographic transitions on religious minorities, the effects of conflict on religious freedom, and "the rising tide of anti-Semitism."

"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion," said US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, introducing the report at a press conference at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"This right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance," said Secretary Clinton.

Suzan Johnson Cook, the US Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, said that freedom of religion is not just an American right but the right of all people.

"It goes hand in hand with freedom of expression, freedom of speech and assembly, and when religious freedom is restricted, all these rights are at risk," said Ambassador Cook. "And for this reason, religious freedom is often the bellwether for other human rights. It's the canary in the coalmine."

The section on Iran was especially critical, stating that the "government's respect for and protection of the right to religious freedom continued to deteriorate."

"The legal system fosters religious abuse and discrimination," said the report, noting that the "constitution and other laws and policies severely restrict freedom of religion."

The report sought to document such abuse, and it found that virtually all religious groups outside the Shia Muslim majority faced discrimination.

"Harassment and arrests of Sufis also continued during the year," said the report, noting that some 60 Sufis had been arrested in September after confrontations with security forces.

Christians also faced continuing discrimination. The government last year confiscated some 6,500 Christian Bibles, the report said, and it continued to imprison Christian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who has been sentenced to death for apostasy.

"Zoroastrians also reported detentions and harassment," the report said, describing the October arrest of Yashin Jamshidi, a Zoroastrian in Karaj.

Situation of Baha'is highlighted

The situation of Iran's 300,000-member Baha'i community was highlighted prominently throughout the report. Among other things, the report noted that Baha'is are precluded from enrollment in state-run universities, banned from the social pension system, and prohibited from "officially assembling or maintaining administrative institutions."

The report also stated clearly that Baha'is are persecuted because of the religious beliefs.

"The government arbitrarily arrested Baha'is and charged them with violating Islamic penal code articles 500 and 698, relating to activities against the state and spreading falsehoods, respectively," said the report, noting that 95 Baha'is were imprisoned and 416 had active cases in the judicial system at the end of 2011.

"Often the charges were not dropped upon release, and those with charges pending against them reportedly feared arrest at any time. Most were released only after paying a large fine or posting high bail. For some, bail was in the form of deeds of property; others gained their release in exchange for personal guarantees from a "guardian" that the offender would appear in court, or the granting of a work license.

"Government officials reportedly offered Baha'is relief from mistreatment in exchange for recanting their religious affiliation, and if incarcerated, made recanting their religious affiliation a precondition for release," said the report.

The report noted that "Baha'i graveyards in a number of cities were desecrated by unspecified actors, and the government did not seek to identify or punish the perpetrators."

It also said Baha'is and their properties had been the subject of arson attacks. "In all cases, police said nothing could be done to find the perpetrators," said the report.

Baha'is also "experienced an escalation of personal harassment," the report said, "including receiving threatening notes, compact discs, text messages, and tracts."

The report also discussed actions by the State Department last year in support of Iranian Baha'is, noting that its spokespersons had called "unprecedented" the re-imposition of a long, 20-year prison sentence for seven imprisoned national Baha'i leaders, and that they had also last year criticized "the lack of due process" in that sentencing, saying it was a violation of Iran's commitments under international law.