(Iran found to commit "severe violations of religious freedom")(2140)
The Washington File
April 30, 2001
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom says Iran denies freedom of religion to minority religious groups that are not officially recognized by the state and those that are perceived to attempt to convert Muslims.
"For the last two years, the Secretary of State has determined that the government of Iran has engaged in particularly severe violations of religious freedom, including prolonged detentions and executions based primarily or entirely upon the religion of the victims, thereby designating Iran as a "country of particular concern," the commission said in its second annual report issued in Washington April 30.
The commission said members of the Iranian Baha'i community suffer the worst persecution at the hands of the Iranian state.
Following is the text of the section of the commission's report on Iran:
B. The conditions of religious freedom are very poor in Iran, particularly with respect to minority religious groups that are not officially recognized by the state and those perceived to be attempting to convert Muslims. For the last two years, the Secretary of State has determined that the government of Iran has engaged in particularly severe violations of religious freedom, including prolonged detentions and executions based primarily or entirely upon the religion of the victims, thereby designating Iran as a "country of particular concern" pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.
In her address to the American-Iranian Council in March 2000, then-Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright announced that the United States was open to taking steps toward improving relations with Iran, if Iran were to take steps to address the issues that the United States has identified as prerequisites to better relations, such as desisting from the development of nuclear weapons and support for international terrorism. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has indicated that the Bush administration, while continuing to insist that Iran end its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, support for terrorism, and human rights abuses, would seek to "nuance" its Iran policy in order to encourage Iranian moderates.
The Commission believes that human rights, including religious freedom, must remain an essential element of U.S. policy toward Iran.1
D. The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran provides that the official religion of Iran is Islam of the doctrine of the Twelver (Jaafari) School and stipulates that all laws and regulations, including the Constitution itself, must be based on Islamic criteria.
The Constitution also provides that other Islamic schools of doctrine are to be accorded full respect in matters of religious rites, religious education, and personal status. It recognizes Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians as the only religious minorities who, as such, are free to engage in religious practices and act according to their own rules in matters of personal status and religious education "within the limits of the law."
Current, reliable statistics on the religious composition of Iranian society are not available. Shia Muslims are reported to comprise 89 percent of the population, 10 percent are Sunni Muslim, and one percent are non-Muslims, including Baha'is (300,000), Christians (250,000, including 150,000 Armenian Orthodox, 30,000 Assyrians-Chaldeans and small communities of Catholics and Protestants), Zoroastrians (30,000), and Jews (30,000).
Members of the Baha'i community suffer the worst forms of religious persecution at the hands of the state. More than 200 Baha'is were executed in the first six years following the 1979 revolution.
Since 1983, the Baha'i community has been barred from assembling in public or operating administrative institutions. The Iranian government does not recognize Baha'is as a religious minority, rather in its view Baha'is constitute a political organization that was associated with the Shah's regime, is opposed to the Iranian Revolution, and engages in espionage activities on behalf of foreign countries, including Israel. Baha'is are effectively prevented from (1) teaching or practicing their religion; (2) communicating with or sending funds to Baha'i world headquarters; (3) attending public or private universities; and (4) holding government jobs (all Baha'is were removed from government positions in the 1980s). Baha'i holy places, cemeteries, and administrative properties were seized after the 1979 revolution, and many places have been destroyed. Much of the personal and business property belonging to Baha'is has also been seized.
According to the State Department, as of June 30, 2000, 11 Baha'is were under arrest for the practice of their faith, including four persons who have been sentenced to death - two for alleged "Zionist Baha'i activities" and two for apostasy. In addition, a number of Baha'is - particularly those engaged in educational activities - were harassed and detained over the preceding year.
Members of the officially-recognized non-Muslim minorities - Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians - are subject to legal and other forms of official discrimination. They are reportedly (1) prohibited from being elected to a representative body (except for reserved seats in the National Parliament); (2) prohibited from serving in the army, the security services, and the judiciary, and from becoming school principals (even in private minority schools); (3) limited in their access to higher education; and (4) suffer discrimination in legal proceedings.
The trial and conviction of a group of Iranian Jews in 2000 on charges of espionage and cooperating with Israel, under conditions that fell far short of international standards, illustrates the continued vulnerability of that group to harassment and imprisonment.
In addition to the problems faced by other Christians in Iran, Evangelical Christians are subjected to a number of further repressive measures. This harsher treatment is reportedly due, in part, to the Western origins of Iranian Protestant churches, their continued links with Evangelical churches outside Iran, and their willingness to seek out and accept converts from other religions. Iranian Evangelicals operating in Iran are subject to harassment and close surveillance and many are reported to have fled the country. Evangelical services are allowed only on Sundays and government officials require notification when a new member joins a church. Some Protestant associations have been unable to officially register since 1979, while a number of Protestant places of worship remain closed by government order since the 1980s. There are also allegations that the government played a role in the murders or disappearances of a number of Evangelical Christian leaders in the past ten years.
Members of the Sunni Muslim minority face a number of difficulties. Sunni Iranians, for example, claim that the government has prevented them from building a Sunni mosque in Tehran. They also point to the 1994 murder of a Sunni imam who had been critical of the regime and to the destruction of the only Sunni mosque in the eastern town of Mashhad as evidence of official and popular hostility toward Sunnis. Iranian Sunni leaders have alleged widespread abuses and restrictions on their religious practice, including detentions and torture of Sunni clerics and bans on Sunni teachings in public schools and Sunni religious literature, even in predominantly Sunni areas.
A number of senior Shiite religious leaders who have opposed various religious and/or political tenets and practices of the Iranian government have also reportedly been targets of state repression, including house arrest, detention without charge, unfair trials, torture and other forms of ill treatment. In addition, the government has closed and confiscated educational and charitable institutions associated with these leaders. In some cases, these clerics have been targeted for their opposition to reported restrictions on controversial religious practices and state control of religious institutions.
C. Commission Recommendations
In light of the preceding description of the situation in Iran, the Commission makes the following recommendations:
1. The President or Secretary of State should reaffirm to the government of Iran that improvement in religious freedom and other human rights in that country is a prerequisite for the complete relaxation of sanctions by and the normalization of relations with the United States.
2. In the past, the State Department has articulated four conditions for the improvement of relations with Iran: (1) Iran should not develop weapons of mass destruction, (2) Iran should not sponsor terrorism, (3) Iran should not impede the "peace process" in the Middle East, and (4) Iran should improve its human rights record. With regard to human rights, including religious freedom, for example, the State Department spokesman stated on July 23, 1998 that U.S. concerns about religious freedom in Iran "will play an important role in any future dialogue with the government of Iran."
Statements made late in the previous administration appear to have dropped reference to the fourth condition. In her March 2000 speech, then Secretary of State Albright articulated only two conditions to the full normalization of diplomatic relations with Iran and the elimination of sanctions: halting nuclear weapons development and ending support of terrorism.
As the new administration continues to review and reformulate its Iran policy, the Commission recommends that the fourth condition - improvement in the area of human rights - be prominently and publicly reinstated as an essential part of U.S. relations with the government of Iran, and that religious freedom be clearly included in such advocacy of human rights in Iran.
3. The U.S. government should consistently, continuously, and vigorously press the government of Iran to improve conditions of religious freedom, and should urge its European and other allies to support advocacy for religious freedom in Iran. Voice of America Farsi-language broadcasting into Iran should include regular reporting on religious freedom in Iran and religious-freedom issues in general.
4. Although the United States does not have diplomatic relations with Iran, the U.S. government should use every opportunity available to press the government of Iran to improve the protection of religious freedom, including public statements and diplomacy in multilateral forums.
The Commission recognizes statements made in the past by the White House and the State Department concerning persecution against members of the Baha'i community and the arrest and trial of the members of the Iranian Jewish community, and believes that such statements made at the highest levels should continue as events dictate.
The U.S. government also should urge others, in particular the European Union and those European allies that are engaged in trade and investment relations with Iran, to press for improvements in the conditions of religious freedom in their bilateral relations.
3. The U.S. government should continue to sponsor or support annual resolutions of the United Nations Commission On Human Rights (UNCHR) condemning Iran's egregious and systematic violations of religious freedom and should recruit the support of other Commission member countries, until such violations cease.
Support for a strong resolution condemning human rights violations in Iran is reportedly diminishing among members of the UNCHR. The United States should continue its support for annual resolutions by the UN General Assembly and the UNCHR regarding the human rights situation in Iran, including condemning the Iranian government's egregious and systematic violations of religious freedom, and calling upon the government of Iran to extend an invitation to the Special Representative of the UNCHR on human rights in Iran to visit the country.
5. The United States should facilitate (through issuance of visas) and remove barriers (such as the U.S. Department of Justice policy of fingerprinting Iranians at ports of entry) to unofficial cultural exchange - e.g., academic, religious, athletic, and scientific - between the United States and Iran.
6. Former Secretary Albright in her March 2000 address stated that Americans should work to expand and broaden person-to-person exchanges of academics and civil society leaders between the United States and Iran. The Commission believes that such exchanges should be encouraged. Iranian religious leaders in particular may benefit from travel in the United States and exposure to American religious leaders who concern themselves with the process of the protection and promotion of religious freedom and with interreligious dialogue and action in the United States.
One impediment to cultural and religious exchanges appears to be an order of the Justice Department that all non-immigrants bearing Iranian travel documents that are seeking entry into the United States must be registered, photographed, and fingerprinted at the port of entry.
This policy applies to essentially all Iranians seeking to enter the United States. Iranian scholars, athletes, and others have protested the application of this policy, and in some cases have declined invitations to the United States or have returned home after refusing to be fingerprinted upon arrival. The current, broad fingerprinting policy has frustrated efforts to engage in person-to-person exchanges with Iran, and appears to be more restrictive than is necessary to meet U.S. security objectives.
In addition, the publicity in Iran surrounding the use of this policy is reportedly used by those in Iran who oppose the improvement of relations with the United States to criticize those who favor increased ties.