Last Updated: Thursday, 23 November 2017, 12:01 GMT

USCIRF Annual Report 2005 - Iran

Publisher United States Commission on International Religious Freedom
Publication Date 1 May 2005
Cite as United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, USCIRF Annual Report 2005 - Iran, 1 May 2005, available at: [accessed 24 November 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

The government of Iran engages in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, including prolonged detention, torture, and executions based primarily or entirely upon the religion of the accused. Over the past year, the Iranian government's poor religious freedom record deteriorated, particularly for Baha'is, Evangelical Christians, and Muslim dissidents, all of whom have faced intensified harassment, detention, arrests, and imprisonment. Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, significant numbers from all religious minority communities have fled Iran for fear of persecution. Since 1999, the State Department has designated Iran as a "country of particular concern," or CPC. The Commission continues to recommend that Iran remain a CPC.

The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran proclaims Islam, particularly the doctrine of the Twelver (Shia) Jaafari School, to be the official religion of the country. It stipulates that all laws and regulations, including the Constitution itself, be based on Islamic criteria. The Head of State, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution and has direct control over the armed forces, the internal security forces, and the judiciary. The Council of Guardians, half of whose members are appointed by the Supreme Leader, reviews all legislation passed by the Majlis (parliament) for adherence to Islamic and constitutional principles. The Constitution grants the Council of Guardians the power to screen and disqualify candidates for elective offices based on an ill-defined set of requirements, including candidates' ideological and religious beliefs. In February 2004, elections were held for the 290-seat Parliament in Iran. In a move to diminish pro-reformist re-election chances, the Guardian Council disqualified approximately one-third of the 8,200 submissions for candidacy, including those of more than 80 reformists holding Majlis seats, effectively limiting the democratic alternatives available to Iranian voters.

In recent years, dozens of prominent Muslim activists and dissidents advocating political reform have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms by the Revolutionary Court, ostensibly on charges of seeking to overthrow the Islamic system in Iran; others have been arrested and detained for alleged blasphemy and criticizing the nature of the Islamic regime. Reformists and journalists are regularly tried under current press laws and the Penal Code on charges of "insulting Islam," criticizing the Islamic Republic, and publishing materials that deviate from Islamic standards. Following a visit to Iran, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression concluded in early 2004 that such charges brought by Iranian courts "lack any objective criteria" and are open to "subjective and arbitrary interpretation by judges implementing them." In a positive development, Hashem Aghajari, a prominent Iranian academic who was sentenced to death for blasphemy in November 2002, was released in July 2004 after a retrial and a reduction of his sentence.

The government's monopoly on and enforcement of the official interpretation of Islam negatively affect the human rights of women in Iran, including their right to freedoms of movement, association, thought, conscience, and religion, and freedom from coercion in matters of religion or belief. The Iranian justice system does not grant women the same legal status as men; for example, testimony by a man is equivalent to the testimony of two women. Provisions of both the Civil and Penal Codes, in particular those sections dealing with family and property law, discriminate against women.

Iranian Sunni leaders have reported widespread abuses and restrictions on their religious practice, including detentions and torture of Sunni clerics as well as bans on Sunni teachings in public schools and Sunni religious literature, even in predominantly Sunni areas. Sunni and Sufi Muslims also report widespread official discrimination, and Sunnis report the absence of a mosque in Tehran. Even Shia clerics are affected by government repression. A number of senior Shia religious leaders who have opposed various religious and/or political tenets and practices of the Iranian government have also been targets of state repression, including house arrest, detention without charge, unfair trials, torture, and other forms of ill treatment. Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the most senior dissident Shia cleric, was sentenced to house arrest in 1997 and banned from teaching Islam or criticizing Iran's Supreme Leader. His house arrest and ban was lifted in 2003.

The Constitution of Iran formally recognizes Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians as protected religious minorities who may worship freely and have autonomy over their own matters of personal status (e.g. marriage, divorce, and inheritance). However, members of these groups are subject to legal and other forms of discrimination, particularly in education, government jobs and services, and the armed services. Non-Muslims may not engage in public religious expression and persuasion among Muslims; some also face restrictions on publishing religious material in Persian.

The primacy of Islam and Islamic laws and institutions also adversely affects the rights and status of non-Muslims. While all religious minorities reportedly suffer, severe violations are directed principally towards the 300,000 to 350,000 followers of the Baha'i faith in Iran. Baha'is are often viewed as "heretics" by Iranian authorities, and may face repression on the grounds of apostasy. Since 1979, Iranian government authorities have killed more than 200 Baha'i leaders in Iran, and more than 10,000 have been dismissed from government and university jobs. Baha'is may not establish houses of worship, schools, or any independent religious associations in Iran. In addition, Baha'is are denied government jobs and pensions as well as the right to inherit property, and their marriages and divorces are not recognized. Baha'i cemeteries, holy places, and community properties are often seized and some have been destroyed. Members of the Baha'i faith are not allowed to attend university. According to the State Department, restrictions on the Baha'i community steadily intensified after the UN Commission on Human Rights ended formal monitoring of the human rights situation in Iran in the spring of 2002.

Though a few Baha'i prisoners have been released in recent years, Baha'is in Iran continue to face harsh treatment. Over the past year, Baha'i property has been confiscated or destroyed and several Baha'is have been harassed, interrogated, detained, imprisoned, or physically attacked. In February 2004, Iranian authorities destroyed a tomb at a Baha'i holy site, and in June, the authorities razed the historic house of the father of the founder of the Baha'i faith, marking the first time in 25 years that Baha'i holy sites had been destroyed. In December 2004, seven Baha'is were detained, interrogated, and subsequently released in the city of Yazd; others were reportedly physically beaten by authorities. In January 2005, the personal property of several Baha'is in Yazd was confiscated and destroyed and in February 2005, a Baha'i cemetery in Yazd was razed. In early March 2005, five Baha'is were arrested without charge in Tehran by Iranian officials. Two have been released but three remain in custody. In April, six more members of the Baha'i community were arrested and are reportedly still in detention. One Baha'i who was arrested in 1995 and charged with apostasy is still serving a life sentence.

Over the past 15 years, numerous Evangelical Christians reportedly have been killed at the hands of government authorities and more than a dozen are reported missing or "disappeared." According to a 2001 report of the UN Special Representative on Iran, some are said to have been convicted of apostasy. Evangelical Christians in Iran continue to be subject to harassment, close surveillance, and imprisonment; many are reported to have fled the country. In the summer of 2004, several Christians in the Mazandaran province in northern Iran were arrested for several days and subsequently released. In September, Iranian authorities raided an Evangelical church detaining more than 80 congregants – some were held for days without charge – and imprisoning its pastor, a former military colonel, Hamid Pourmand. Sentenced to three years in prison by a military court in February 2005, Pourmand now faces a second trial before an Islamic court on charges of apostasy, an offense which carries the death penalty.

Iran's anti-Israel policy continues to create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation among Iran's Jews, and members of the Jewish community have been singled out on the basis of "ties to Israel," whether real or perceived. Official government discrimination against Jews is reportedly pervasive. According to the State Department, despite minimal restriction on Jewish religious practice, in recent years, education of Jewish children has become increasingly difficult and distribution of Hebrew religious texts is strongly discouraged. Furthermore, several independent reports indicate that anti-Semitism in Iran's government-controlled media has increased significantly over the past year. In 2004, several state-controlled and privately-owned newspapers celebrated the 100th anniversary of the publication of the notorious anti-Semitic publication "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," which fabricates a worldwide Jewish conspiracy.

Throughout the past year, Commission staff met with members of non-governmental organizations representing various religious communities in Iran, as well as human rights groups and other Iran experts. In January 2004, the Commission held a meeting with a diverse group of individuals from the Iranian American community in Los Angeles to discuss religious freedom and human rights conditions in Iran and implications for U.S. policy.

In addition to recommending that Iran be designated a CPC, the Commission recommends that the U.S. government should:

  • at the highest levels, vigorously speak out publicly about the deteriorating conditions for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief in Iran, including drawing attention to specific cases where severe violations have occurred;
  • increase funding for Voice of America and Radio Farda programming on the situation of human rights – including the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief – in Iran;
  • advocate for creation of a UN Special Rapporteur to investigate and report publicly on the human rights situation, including freedom of religion or belief, in Iran at the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) and the UN General Assembly's Third Committee;
  • call on the UNCHR to monitor carefully and demand compliance with the implementation of recommendations of the representatives of those special mechanisms that have already visited Iran, particularly those of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief (1995), the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (2003), and the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression (2003);
  • encourage the UNCHR to continue to use its procedures to maintain oversight of conditions for freedom of religion or belief in Iran, including continued visits and reporting by relevant UNCHR rapporteurs and working groups; and
  • strongly urge the European Union, through its human rights dialogue with Iran initiated in 2002, to press the Iranian government actively to address and rectify its severe human rights violations, including violations of freedom of religion or belief.

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