Since the 1979 revolution, Irans religious and ethnic minorities have suffered increasing human rights violations. Religious minorities are viewed with suspicion and treated as a threat to a theocratic system bent on imposing a strict interpretation of Shia Islam. Although Iran is party to several international covenants that provide for freedom of religion or belief, several Christians, Bahais, Sufi Dervishes and Sunni Muslims have been killed judicially and extra-judicially, tortured, imprisoned or generally harassed on account of their faith. The persecution of Muslim converts to Christianity has been escalating since 2009. This has been accompanied by a rise in anti-Christian rhetoric from senior official leaders. The Bahai community, which remains unrecognised, has also experienced increasing hate speech.
State of freedom of religion or belief
Iran is party to several international agreements that provide for freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Within its own constitution Iran officially recognises Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism. Despite this, Christians are only permitted to worship in a few government-sanctioned churches, where they are monitored by intelligence services, who often harass members. This has forced many to meet in members’ homes. However, these ‘house churches’ are deemed illegal and are currently the subject of a campaign of harassment.
The Baha’i and Sufi Dervish communities have also faced increasing persecution. Baha’is are considered apostates and heretics; they are denied legal status and have been actively targeted since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Several conservative clerics have described Sufis as a cult and a ‘danger to Islam’. Under the former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Sufis were arrested in increasing numbers, and many were sentenced to lashing.
Violations of Freedom of religion or belief: the Christian Community
Since 2010 house churches have been targeted in a campaign of raids and arrests. Pastors and members of several church networks in cities across the nation have been interrogated, imprisoned and their belongings confiscated. Converts from Islam have been particularly targeted, as they are seen as undermining Shia Islam through abandoning their former religion. Some of those arrested are released after paying exorbitant bail demands.
Christians are routinely charged with political crimes in an attempt justify their sentences, although this is simply a ruse for imprisoning them on account of their faith. Recent arrests have targeted members of the Assemblies of God (AoG) movement, which had previously enjoyed government sanction. Several AoG pastors and church members have been imprisoned, including Farshid Fathi and Saeed Abedini. The latter was sentenced to eight years in prison earlier in 2013.
Government-sanctioned churches are watched closely by intelligence forces with pastors asked to hand over details of their members. Churches have also been asked to end their Friday Farsi-speaking services in a clear attempt to reduce attendance, since Friday is a weekend day and Sunday is a working day. The last Farsi-speaking church in Tehran was ordered to cease its Sunday services in Farsi earlier in 2013. Following pressure from the authorities, the church’s leaders decided to close the church.
Violations of freedom of religion or belief: the Baha’i community
The Baha’i community has faced intense persecution since 1979. Baha’is are perceived as a threat to the homeland and as a group previously favoured by the Shah. They are not officially recognised and are continually denied access to fair judicial process and other civil and economic rights.
Over 200 Baha’i leaders have been killed or executed since 1979, and over 10,000 members dismissed from government and university posts. Holy places have been destroyed, many have been arrested and thousands of Baha’i students have been denied access to university education. Baha’is cannot access further education and are excluded from public service jobs. Those found to be Baha’i have often been dismissed from their public roles soon after.
On 31 July 2013, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a fatwa [religious edict] in which he called on Iranians to avoid Baha’is and labelled them a “deviant and misleading sect”.
Apostates not only risk societal pressure and rejection by family or community members, but also severe harassment from the state, which views them as undermining Iran’s Islamic identity. While in some countries apostasy (leaving a religion: in this case, Islam) is a crime codified in law, this is not the case in Iran, and there is no specific punishment stipulated for convicted apostates. Nevertheless, the death sentence can be handed down on the basis of an open-ended article of the constitution, which allows judges to deliver verdicts on the basis of authoritative Islamic sources and authentic fatwas. In September 2010, Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani from the Church of Iran denomination was sentenced to death for apostasy on the basis of more restrictive fatwas. He was released in September 2012 after an international outcry. This is not the first time a Christian has been charged with apostasy in Iran. In 1993 Christian convert, Mehdi Dibaj, was sentenced to death for apostasy but was also released following an international outcry. However, in June 1994 he was abducted and killed.
In 2008 the Iranian Parliament passed a bill agreeing in principle to changes in the penal code mandating death for male apostates and life with hard labour for females. However in 2012 came reports that this provision had been dropped because it was not in the interest of the regime.
A new president
President Hassan Rouhani was elected in June 2013 with a majority of the popular vote. He gained strong support after running on a moderate platform, which saw him gain the backing of two former reformist presidents as well as support from the 2009 Green Movement. He has promised to free political prisoners and has spoken on behalf of women and religious minorities, citing the need for “reconciliation” and “moderation”. Although there is cautious optimism over his election, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayotollah Khamenei retains absolute power over key decisions.
CSW advocates at the EU, UN and UK Parliament, raising awareness of freedom of religion or belief violations. Our advocacy work is supplemented by country briefings, articles and press releases to inform the media, activists and policymakers of the continuing repression of religious and ethnic minorities. CSW has undertaken advocacy assignments, including to countries where Iranians who have fled persecution now live. These allow CSW to gather detailed first-hand evidence of the violations people have faced, and provide an opportunity to express solidarity.
During 2013, CSW briefed parliamentarians at the European Parliament on the situation in Iran and the treatment of Christians and other religious minorities. CSW also hosted visits from Iranian contacts, and facilitated their meetings at the UK Parliament, the European Parliament and with the British Government.
Timeline of key dates
1979: The Islamic Republic of Iran is formed
1980: Murders of Anglican Reverend Arastooh Sayyah, whose throat was cut, and Bahram Deghani-Tafti, the son of an Anglican Bishop, who was shot dead
1990 Reverend Hossein Soodmand is arrested, found guilty of apostasy and other charges, and executed in December
1994: Mehdi Debaj, Christian leader and convert from Islam sentenced to death for apostasy and murdered in June, following his release from prison. Bishop Haik Hovsepian Mehr murdered in January after initiating a worldwide campaign for the release of Mehdi Debaj. Reverend Taleos Michaelian, former executive secretary of the Presbyterian Synod of Iran, found murdered in July. 1996: Body of Reverend Mohammed Yusefi, a convert from Islam who actively defended the victims of 1994, found hanging from a tree in a forest near his home
2005: Pastor Ghorbandordi Tourani, Iranian House Church Leader, murdered near his home in Gonbad-e Kavous
2009: Converts from Islam Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh arrested and held in Evin Prison for 259 days
2011: Seven Baha’i spiritual leaders arrested in 2008 sentenced to 20 years imprisonment each
2012: Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani released after being sentenced to death for apostasy in 2010. Human rights defender Mohammed Ali Dadkhah imprisoned
2012: Reports that efforts to amend Islamic penal code to include death for male apostates and life imprisonment with hard labour for females have failed
2013: Hassan Rouhani elected president. Supreme leader issues fatwa against Baha’i community; Prominent Baha’i Ataollah Rezvani murdered in what may be the first religiously-motivated murder of an Iranian Baha’i in 15 years
- Population: 75 million
- Official language: Persian (Farsi)
- Official religion: Shia Islam (approx 90%)
- Christians: approximately 300,000
- Iran is the world’s only theocracy