Iran’s president, who reached his second anniversary in office Monday, was again implored to release prisoners of conscience — including an Iranian-American pastor — and improve conditions for freedom of religion.
“Two years have passed since President [Hassan] Rouhani assumed office, and for two years he has failed on his promise to improve the climate for religious freedom, particularly for religious minority communities,” Robert P. George, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), said Monday.
“In fact, the situation for religious minority groups — including Baha’is, Christians, and Sufi Muslims — remains dire, as it does for dissenting Shi’a and Sunni Muslims,” said Mr. George, a nationally known law professor at Princeton University.
Baha’is, in particular, are being mistreated, he said, with authorities closing their businesses and wreaking financial havoc on the persecuted minority.
However, “Christian church services continue to be raided and worshippers arrested, and dissenting Muslims continue to be imprisoned and tortured,” Mr. George said.
Mr. Rouhani had sparked hope of moderation when in 2013, he said “All ethnicities, all religions, even religious minorities, must feel justice.”
However, imprisonments have continued apace, and USCIRF Monday called for the immediate release of hundreds of prisoners of conscience. These include Pastor Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-American Christian from Idaho; Behnam Irani, an evangelical Christian leader; Ayatollah Mohammed Kazemeini Boroujerdi, a dissident Shi’a Muslim cleric; and members of the Baha’i community, including the Baha’i Seven (Afif Naemimi, Behrouz Tavakkoli, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Vahid Tizfahm, Fariba Kamalabadi, Mahvash Sabet, and Saeid Rezaie).
The State Department has designated Iran as a “country of particular concern” since 1999 over its systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has rejected such assertions, saying in April to journalist Charlie Rose, “We do not jail people for their opinions.” People imprisoned for breaking Iranian law are often deemed “security prisoners,” but not “prisoners of conscience.”
In September, hundreds of advocates gathered in the District to pray for the release of Pastor Abedini, who was born and raised a Muslim in Iran, but converted to Christianity in 2000. He became an American citizen several years later, but was arrested in 2012 when he returned to Iran on a humanitarian mission to help with orphanages.
At the prayer vigil, Pastor Abedini’s wife, Naghmeh, who is also a U.S. citizen, read from a letter in which the imprisoned pastor reassured his 8-year-old daughter that ” Lord Jesus Christ is in control,” and expressed his wish that she “learn important lessons during these trying times,” particularly that “everything that is happening in it is for His good purpose,” the Catholic News Agency said..
The pastor, 35, has been “viciously beaten” many times for not recanting Christianity, according to a June article in the Christian Post. He is serving an eight-year prison sentence for threatening national security.
In May, the USCIRF said in its annual report for 2015 that the government of Iran “continues to engage 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.”
“Since his June 2013 election, President Hassan Rouhani has not delivered on his campaign promises to strengthen civil liberties for religious minorities,” the report added.