In a report released this month, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan governmental body, described a deteriorating situation regarding religious freedom in Iran — particularly for Baha’is, Evangelical Christians, and Sufi Muslims.
At least 30 members of the Baha’i community are in prison because of their faith, according to the Commission. Dozens are awaiting trial, while others have been arbitrarily sentenced to prison terms ranging from 3 months to several years. The 7 Baha’i community leaders remain in prison charged with crimes — such as “insulting religious sanctities” and espionage — that could result in the death penalty. May 14th was the one-year anniversary of their arrest.
The Commission also cited the cases of persecuted Christians in Iran, like Marzieh Esmaeilabad and Maryam Rustampoor. The 2 women werearrested in March for practicing Christianity after authorities raided and confiscated materials from their home. Authorities reportedly have accused them of engaging in anti-government activities, and they are being held in Evin where they face further interrogation.
Sufi Muslims have also been targeted by the Iranian government because of their faith. The Commission reports that in the past year more than a dozen Sufi Muslims, including 6 members of the Gonabadi Dervishes on Kish Island, were arrested; some are still in prison, while the whereabouts of others are unknown.
Most disconcerting, the Iranian Parliament is considering approving draft revisions to the penal code that would make conversion from Shi’a Islam to any other religion (known as apostasy) a crime punishable by death.
In the past, the death penalty has been applied for apostasy at the discretion of judges interpreting Shari’a law, but this punishment was not explicitly codified. But if the proposed law is finalized, this would endanger the lives of many religious minorities, who are considered apostates even if their parents were of the same religious minority.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Iran has ratified, guarantees “the right of thought, conscience and religion,” as well as the right to change religion and “to manifest … religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
Felice Gaer, Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, expressed disappointment that the Iranian government “will use any pretext, however baseless, to harass and detain those whose religious beliefs differ from those enforced by the state. … Sadly,” said Ms. Gaer, “[Iran’s] disregard for its own citizens’ most fundamental rights continues to flout international standards.”