The United States State Department Wednesday released its 2020 report on international religious freedom in which Iran is named among the worst abusers of religious rights. Secretary of State Antony Blinken ranked Iran alongside China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, and Myanmar.
“Iran continues to intimidate, harass, and arrest members of minority faith groups, including Baha’i, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Sunni and Sufi Muslims,” Blinken said. The Iran section of the report which was published separately on Thursday was a 38-page detailed look at conditions minorities face.
The State Department report said non-Shia Muslims and those affiliated with a religion other than Islam, especially Baha’i, faced societal discrimination and harassment in 2020, while employers experienced social pressures not to hire Baha’i or to dismiss them.
The Iranian constitution recognizes Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians − excluding converts from Islam – as permitted to worship and form religious societies.
According to Iranian government estimates, Muslims constitute 99.4 percent of the population, of whom 90-95 percent are Shia. Most Sunnis belong to Turkmen, Arab, Baluchi, and Kurdish ethnic groups who live in north-east, south-west, south-east, and north-west provinces respectively and may also be subject to ethnic discrimination.
In January 2020, NGOs and press reported that the application form for the state-issued national identity card, required for almost all government and other transactions, would allow citizens to register only as one of the country’s recognized religions – Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism – and omitted the option for “other religions.” Followers of the Baha’i faith had previously used the “other” option.
Iran’s Sunnis, who constitute between 5 and 10 percent of the population, often complain of discrimination barring them from key government and military positions. In early January in a letter to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Abdolhamid Esmail-Zehi, the Sunni Friday prayer leader of Zahedan in Sistan-Baluchistan province, said that the government treated Sunnis as inferior citizens. Esmail-Zehi argued that despite an order issued by Khamenei in 2017, no Sunnis had been appointed as cabinet minister, provincial governor, vice-president or presidential adviser, or as an adviser or representative of the Supreme Leader.
According to the Statistical Center of Iran, Christians (Armenian, Assyrian and Chaldean mainly) number 117,700. There is no authoritative data on the number of converts who practice in secret in fear of persecution. Many converts, such as are arrested and imprisoned on charges of “acting against national security” and “propaganda against the system.”
Bahai’s face societal discrimination and harassment, including an unwritten ban from higher education, unless they lie about their faith on application forms. Based on information from NGOs, the State Department report said that there were 38 Baha’i – 16 men and 22 women – in prison as of October 27, 2020. Twenty-six of them were jailed during the year.
Bahai’s also face problems unique to their community such as vandalism of cemeteries. In April rights groups reported that authorities were forcing Baha’i to bury their dead at Khavaran cemetery, south-east Tehran, where hundreds of political prisoners executed in 1988 were interred in unmarked mass graves. “As well as causing further pain and anguish to the already persecuted Baha’i minority by depriving them of their rights to give their loves ones a dignified burial in line with their religious beliefs, Iran’s authorities are wilfully destroying a crime scene,” said Diana Eltahawy Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, on April 29.