Situation of the Bahá’í Minority in Iran and the Existing Legal Framework

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Sunday, June 5th, 2016

This article examines the situation of Iran’s Bahá’í community, the country’s largest non-Muslim religious minority, in the context of the Islamic Republic’s legal framework as well as President Hassan Rouhani’s proposed Citizenship Rights Charter. Discussing provisions of the Iranian Constitution, Iran’s criminal statute known as the Islamic Penal Code, and the proposed Citizenship Rights Charter, it is demonstrated that the Iranian government has institutionalized religious discrimination. Several examples of discrimination against Iranian Bahá’ís are provided to show the broad scope of these practices and how they impact individual Bahá’ís.



One hundred days after his inauguration, President Hassan Rouhani’s administration released the first draft of its Citizenship Rights Charter.1 President Rouhani has referred to this charter as a “good basis for harmony and unanimity.”2 He further stated that implementing the charter will also be a basis for respecting human rights, and that it will help Iran defend itself against allegations of human rights abuses from the international community.3 A closer examination of this charter, coupled with an analysis of Iran’s human rights record since President Rouhani’s election in 2013, reveals that neither this charter nor similar endeavors can overcome the structural discriminatory practices institutionalized by the Iranian Constitution and widely exercised by various organs of the Iranian state. This article will focus on the situation of Iran’s Bahá’í community, the country’s largest non-Muslim religious minority.

Since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Iran’s Bahá’í community has experienced outright discrimination. More than 200 Bahá’ís have been executed, killed, or have died in prison.4 Bahá’ís have been systematically denied employment in the public sector and barred from entering Iran’s state-run university system. Hundreds have been imprisoned because of their religious faith. According to the Bahá’í International Community, as of 5 February 2016, there were more than 80 Bahá’ís imprisoned in Iran.5 Confiscation of private property and destruction of Bahá’í cemeteries are other means by which the Iranian government has exerted pressure on the
Bahá’í community.


Under Article 4 of the Iranian Constitution, all “civil, penal, financial, economic, administrative, cultural, military, political, and other laws and regulations must be based on Islamic criteria.”6Article 19 states, “All people of Iran, whatever the ethnic group or tribe to which they belong, enjoy equal rights; color, race, language, and the like, do not bestow any privilege.”7 Conspicuously absent from Article 19 is religion. Read together, Articles 4 and 19 indicate that discrimination on the basis of religion, and Islamic law in particular, is acceptable. To be sure, Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christians, who are recognized as official religious minorities, are afforded certain rights. For instance, the Christian minority has three parliamentary seats—two for Armenians and one for Assyrians and Chaldeans—while Jews and Zoroastrians each have one.

In addition, Article 13 of the Constitution specifies that these recognized minorities are free to “perform their religious rites and ceremonies” within the confines of Iranian law.8 These protections, however, are only limited to the three specified minorities and are not extended to those holding other religious beliefs. Furthermore, these protections fall short of ensuring equality under the law. For instance, Iran’s criminal statute, known as the Islamic Penal Code, imposes the death penalty on anyone who murders a Muslim, but if a Muslim murders a non-Muslim, he or she will not be put to death.9


The Citizenship Rights Charter does not attempt to change the institutionalized discrimination found in the Iranian Constitution. Again, religion is left out of categories that prohibit discrimination: “All Iranian citizens, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, wealth, social class, race, etc. enjoy citizenship rights and the foreseen guarantees in rules and regulations.”10 This omission is almost certainly deliberate; religion is indeed mentioned in several other articles of the charter. Article 3-117 reiterates the constitutional right of recognized religious minorities to hold and attend religious ceremonies.11 Article 3-125 states that citizens have the right to enjoy historical and religious monuments.1211 More consequential is Article 3-79, which declares, “Any deprivation, restriction, or preference among the citizens in their access to public services, government services, health services, and education based on factors such as color, gender, language, religion, faith, etc. is prohibited.”13 This article, if implemented, could make a significant difference in at least one facet of discrimination against Bahá’ís. As mentioned above, Bahá’ís have been barred from Iran’s state-run university system. Article 3-79 could potentially reverse this ban, assuming that the term “religion” also encompasses beliefs not among Iran’s recognized religious minorities.

Despite a few provisions that could potentially change discriminatory policies, the overwhelming thrust of the Citizenship Rights Charter follows the established patterns of legal religious discrimination. Article 1-5 states that the charter aims to recognize the duties of the Iranian government within the framework of the Iranian Constitution, Sharia law, and other regulations.14Furthermore, according to Article 1-6, this charter “does not intend to create new rights or duties,” but when existing laws do not recognize certain rights, the government “will formulate and pursue the adoption of legislation.”15 In other words, the Citizenship Rights Charter does not attempt to challenge discriminatory policies that emanate from the Iranian Constitution. Rights of women, for example, are to be protected “according to the law.”16 However, existing laws discriminate against women in a wide variety of areas, including age of criminal responsibility, marriage, inheritance, and veiling. Therefore, a plan that preserves the existing framework of legal discrimination cannot be considered a significant step in addressing the underlying problems facing disadvantaged groups.


While the Citizenship Rights Charter purports to address civil rights issues, in reality, many decisions of import in this arena are taken behind closed doors. A 1991 secret memorandum delineating the Iranian government’s policies towards its Bahá’í minority has, in fact, been more influential than any codified statute or regulation on the issue. This memorandum, drafted by the Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution and approved by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, states that the government should block the Bahá’ís’ progress and development.17 This is to be achieved through means such as barring Bahá’ís from entering university, denial of employment, and preventing them from reaching positions of influence.18 While the memorandum states that Bahá’ís should be permitted to have a “modest livelihood,” in reality, the Iranian government has deprived many ordinary Bahá’ís of their livelihoods.


Iran’s Bahá’í minority has been under intense pressure on multiple fronts since 1979. These problems have not subsided since President Rouhani’s election. A number of issues faced by Bahá’ís are explored below.

Extra-Judicial Attempts on the Lives of Individual Bahá’ís

On 24 August 2013, Ataollah Rezvani, a Bahá’í residing in the southern port city of Bandar Abbas, was shot dead by unknown assailants.19 Rezvani, a water purification expert, had been pressured by Ministry of Intelligence agents to leave the city not long before his murder.20 He had also received threatening phone calls.21 According to the International Bahá’í Community, local clerics had also attempted to incite people in Bandar Abbas against the Bahá’ís. More than two years after Rezvani’s murder, no arrests have been made in this case. Authorities suggested that his death could have been a suicide.22 Rezvani’s family members were also reportedly offered monetary compensation to be paid from public funds in exchange for their agreeing to close the investigation.23 Rezvani’s family refused this offer. The authorities have discussed several alternative theories, as well, but have refused to investigate it as a religiously motivated crime.24

Another attack against Bahá’ís took place on 3 February 2014 in the eastern town of Birjand. An unidentified intruder attacked a family of three with a knife or other sharp object.26 All three victims sustained injuries, but survived the attack.26 No arrest has yet been made.

According to the Bahá’í International Community, there have been more than 50 assaults against Iranian Bahá’ís since 2005, none of which has resulted in a prosecution.27 In the same period, nine Bahá’ís have reportedly been killed under suspicious circumstances, but no person has faced charges for these murders.28

As discussed earlier, a Muslim who kills a non-Muslim will not be put to death under Iranian law, but he or she could still be imprisoned and forced to pay compensation known as diya. But if a Muslim murders a person who has converted to the Bahá’í faith from Islam, he or she may face an even more favorable outcome. Under Article 302 of the Islamic Penal Code, if a victim has ostensibly committed a hadd crime punishable by death, the perpetrator will not be put to death, nor will he or she be forced to pay compensation.29,30 Apostasy is a hadd crime punishable by death, and a person who converts from Islam to another religion may be subject to death as an apostate. Therefore, if an apostate is murdered, the only punishment the perpetrator may face is a prison term of three to 10 years under Article 612 of the Fifth Book of the Islamic Penal Code.31Even if a Muslim kills a person under the mistaken belief that the victim is an apostate, the perpetrator will not be put to death, although he or she will be imprisoned and forced to pay diya.32

A key jurisprudential concept is at play here. Under Islamic law, certain individuals are considered to be mahdur al-dam, which means that they have “worthless blood;” in other words, it is a category of individuals that Shari’a has classified as deserving of death. Individuals considered to be “warring infidels,” as opposed to “protected infidels,” are typically included in this category.33According to a statement reportedly obtained from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s office, Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians are considered to be protected infidels, and as long as they obey the laws of the Islamic government, their rights are to be respected.34

The situation of those espousing other religions or non-believers is less clear. Supreme Leader Khamenei’s office is quoted as saying that the decision as to whether or not other non-Muslims are protected is at the discretion of the Supreme Leader.35 Bahá’ís, therefore, can be seen to fall under the category of “warring infidels.” Indeed, Supreme Leader Khamenei has separately issued a fatwa discouraging Muslims from interacting with Bahá’ís.36 In this fatwa, he referred to Bahá’ís as “deviant and misleading.”37 According to Mehrangiz Kar, an Iranian lawyer and human rights activist, Article 167 of the Iranian Constitution, which states that a judge may refer to Islamic law to make a ruling, can be the basis of judicial action against the Bahá’ís.38 According to Kar, there is a body of jurisprudential texts that consider Bahá’ís to be mahdur al-dam.39

Given this context, it should not be surprising that vigilante murders and assaults of Bahá’ís are inadequately investigated. In addition to the possibility that many of these attacks may be organized by groups tied to the clerical establishment, there are serious jurisprudential impediments to an adequate legal response to such attacks. President Rouhani’s Citizenship Rights Charter does not attempt to change this legal framework.

Arrests and Imprisonment

Members of Iran’s Bahá’í community are increasingly under threat of detainment, imprisonment, harassment, and religious persecution. Bahá’ís are routinely charged with various crimes against the state, including disseminating propaganda against the Islamic Republic and forming or participating in a group with the aim of acting against national security interests. The former is punishable by three months to one year of imprisonment, while the latter, depending on the severity, could be punishable by a minimum of three months up to a maximum of ten years of imprisonment.40 Various human rights organizations have spoken out on behalf of Bahá’ís, asserting that the national security charges leveled against the minority group amount to harassment based solely on their membership in the Bahá’í faith.

Of the more than 80 Bahá’ís imprisoned in Iran as of February 2016, many await the results of their appeals, while others face pending charges. In one of the latest developments, a revolutionary court in Golestan Province in northern Iran sentenced 24 Bahá’ís to a cumulative 193 years in prison. The group of 19 women and five men received sentences ranging from six to 11 years of imprisonment.41 The defendants faced numerous accusations, including:

“collaborating with enemy states by actively promoting sectarian, anti-Islamic, and anti-Shia objectives;”

“propaganda in favor of the Bahá’í faith and against the Islamic Republic by being members of an illegal organization;” and

“implementing [proselytizing] projects in Golestan Province.” The charges of prosletytizing focused primarily on Bahá’í members who had participated in the Ruhi program in Golestan Province.42

It is not clear to which countries the term “enemy states” refers. However, dating back to the early days of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iranian authorities have maintained that the Bahá’ís have acted as agents of Israel. This allegation, for which no evidence has ever been proffered, has been linked to the fact that the Bahá’í International Community headquarters are located in Haifa, Israel. For their part, Bahá’ís have always maintained that Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Bahá’í faith, was exiled by the Ottoman Empire to the territory which later became part of the state of Israel.

In 2008, seven Bahá’í leaders who conducted the administrative affairs of the Iranian Bahá’í community were arrested. In 2010, they were each sentenced to 20 years in prison.43 In addition to the national security charges typically leveled against Bahá’ís, these seven individuals were also charged with espionage against the state. Their appeals were rejected and they are all currently serving their sentences in Raja’i Shahr Prison, a prison used to house violent criminals and that is notorious for its harsh conditions.

The persecution of the Bahá’í community remained unchanged following the election of President Rouhani in 2013 and no significant change is expected in the foreseeable future. President Rouhani’s Citizenship Rights Charter does not address the abuse of due process rights in Iran’s judicial system, nor has his administration proven capable of directly challenging the judiciary.

Denial of Higher Education and Economic Pressure Against Bahá’ís

The Iranian government has continued its policy of denying Bahá’ís admission to the country’s state-run university system. After Bahá’í students take the university entrance examination, they are usually informed that their files are “incomplete” as a way to bar entrance.44

In instances where Bahá’ís have been allowed to enroll, many have been subsequently expelled. As of 22 February 2016, 22 Bahá’ís have been expelled from university since President Rouhani’s inauguration.45 One such student was Mazyar Malaki, a student at the University of Birjand. Malaki was summoned by the intelligence unit of the university and was asked to sign written pledges indicating that he would no longer attend Bahá’í meetings, and that he would no longer obey the instructions of the Universal House of Justice, the international governing body of the Bahá’í faith. Malaki was expelled when he refused to sign the pledge.46

In recent years, many Bahá’í-owned businesses have been shut down by the authorities. The pretext for these closures was that Bahá’í businesses were closed in deference to Bahá’í religious holidays. However, conflicting information has cited trade association rules imposed by the authorities as the actual reason for these business closures. In October 2014, at least 79 businesses were closed down in the cities of Kerman, Rafsanjan, and Jiroft by local authorities.47 In April and May 2015, more than 35 shops were closed in the cities of Rafsanjan, Kerman, Sari, and Hamedan.48 In November 2015, a total of 28 Bahá’í-owned shops were closed in the cities of Sari, Ghaemshahr, Babolsar, Tonekabon, Kerman, and Rafsanjan following the observation of two Bahá’í holy days.49

These actions have to be understood in the context of religious edicts calling for cutting off economic ties with the Bahá’ís. Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, one of the most senior clerics in Iran, has stated that trade with Bahá’ís is not permissible. Other senior clerics have made similar pronouncements.50 These religious edicts actually go further than the 1991 secret memorandum, which stated that Bahá’ís should only be allowed to earn modest livings.


The legal and jurisprudential framework within which the rights of the Bahá’í community are violated in Iran can be directly linked to the country’s aims of maintaining a national identity as an Islamic Republic. The Iranian Constitution and other existing laws institutionalize religious discrimination. Religious edicts by Iran’s Supreme Leader and other senior clerics further reinforce a systemic basis for the marginalization of the Bahá’ís.

President Rouhani’s Citizenship Rights Charter and other similar measures are meant to be a step toward addressing human rights issues in the Islamic Republic. However, the measures outlined fall woefully short of fundamentally addressing the entrenched structural problems within Iranian civil society. These problems will remain unless a concerted effort is made to change the governing philosophy of the Islamic Republic.


1 “English Translation of Draft Citizenship Rights Charter,” Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, (accessed 28 January 2016). In parts, this charter is identical to an existing law, the Law to Respect Legitimate Freedoms and Preserve the Rights of Citizens, which has rarely been invoked with success since its passage in 2004. See Qanuni Ihtiram bih Azadi ha-y Mashru’ va Hifz Hoquq Shahrvandi, available at (in Persion).

2 “Ruhani: Manshari Huquqi Shahrvandi; Mabnayi Khubi Barayi Hamdili va Hamzabani,” Shafaf, 6 April 2015, (in Persian).

3 Ibid.

4 Bahá’í International Community, The Bahá’í Question: Cultural Cleansing in Iran, (New York City: Bahá’í International Community, 2008), 60-63.

5 “Situation of Bahá’ís in Iran,” Bahá’I International Community,á’ís/current-situation#0pkshUoY2CXJHwT2.97 (accessed 5 February 2016).

6 “The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Article 4,” Iran Human Rights Documentation Center,,1980,

7 “The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Article 19,” Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, 1980,

8 “The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Article 13,” Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, 1980,

9 “Islamic Penal Code, Article 301,” Islamic Parliament Research Center, 2013, (in Persian).

10 “English Translation of Draft Citizenship Rights Charter, Article 1-1,” Iranian Human Rights Documentation Center, (accessed 29 January 2016).

11 “English Translation of Draft Citizenship Rights Charter, Article 3-117,” Iranian Human Rights Documentation Center, (accessed 29 January 2016).

12 “English Translation of Draft Citizenship Rights Charter, Article 3-125,” Iranian Human Rights Documentation Center, (accessed 29 January 2016).

13 “English Translation of Draft Citizenship Rights Charter, Article 3-79,” Iranian Human Rights Documentation Center, (accessed 29 January 2016).

14 “English Translation of Draft Citizenship Rights Charter, Article 1-5,” Iranian Human Rights Documentation Center, (accessed 29 January 2016).

15 “English Translation of Draft Citizenship Rights Charter, Article 1-6,” Iranian Human Rights Documentation Center, (accessed 29 January 2016).

16 “English Translation of Draft Citizenship Rights Charter, Article 3-99,” Iranian Human Rights Documentation Center, (accessed 29 January 2016).

17 Bahá’í International Community (2008), 23.

18 Ibid.

19 “Reports of the Killing of an Iranian Bahá’í Received,” Bahá’i World News Service, 26 August 2013, http://news.Bahá’í.org/story/965.

20 “Murder of Mr. Ataollah Rezvani Was Religiously Motivated,” Bahá’i World News Service, 27 August 2013, http://news.Bahá’í.org/story/966.

21 Ibid.

22 Mahrukh Ghulamhusiynpur, “Parvandiyi Mashkuki Ataullahi Rizvani; Bunbasti Dusalih,” Iranwire, 24 August 2015, (in Persian).

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid.

25 “Three Bahá’ís Stabbed in Iran, Apparently a Religious Hate Crime,” Bahá’i World News Service, 7 February 2014, http://news.Bahá’í.org/story/979.

26 Ibid.

27 Ibid.

28 Ibid.

29 Article 15 of the IPC defines hadd as a punishment for which its cause, category, quantity and quality are determined by Shari’a law.

30 “Islamic Penal Code, Article 302,” Islamic Parliament Research Center, 2013, (in Persian).

31 “Islamic Penal Code of the Islamic Republic of Iran – Book Five,” Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, 18 July 2013,

32 “Islamic Penal Code, Article 303,” Islamic Parliament Research Center, 2013,

33 Husiyn Aqababayi, “Qatli Nafs bi I’tiqadi Mahdur al-Dam Budani Maqtul,”, 27 January 2010, (in Persian).

34 “Kafari Zammi,”, 1 January 2011, (in Persian).

35 Ibid.

36 Associated Press, “Aytaollah Ali Khamenei Issues Edict against Bahá’í Faith in Iran,” Huffington Post, 1 August 2013,á’í-fatwa_n_3687872.html.

37 Ibid.

38 Muhammad Riza Yazdanpanah, “Insaniat Zudayi az Bahayian dar Iran,” Radio Farda, 17 July 2013,á’í-iran-suppression/25048934.html (in Persian).

39 Ibid.

40 “Islamic Penal Code of the Islamic Republic of Iran – Book Five, Arts 498-500,” Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, 18 July 2013,

41 “ Two Dozen Iranian Bah’is Sentenced to Six to Eleven Years for Practicing Their Faith,” International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, 2 February 2016,

42 The Ruhi Institute is a program of religious study organized by the Bahá’í community. Non-Bahá’ís are often invited to join the study groups.

43 “Report Says Iran’s Bahá’í Leaders ‘Sentenced,’” Bahá’i World News Service, 8 August 2010, http://news.Bahá’í.org/story/786.

44 “Hich Danishjuyi Baha’i Bi Danishgah Baz Nagashtih Ast,” Radio Zamaneh, 10 September 2014, (in Persian).

45 “Situation of Bahá’ís in Iran,” Bahá’I International Community,á’ís/current-situation#0pkshUoY2CXJHwT2.97 (accessed 5 February 2016).

46 “Yik Shahrvandi Bahay’i Digar Az Danishgah Ikhraj Shud,” Hrana, 10 April 2014,یک-شهروند-بهایی-دیگر-از-دانشگاه-اخراج-ش. (in Persian).

47 “Widespread Attack Launched in Iran against Bahá’í Businesses,” Bahá’í World News Service, 31 October 2014,  http://news.Bahá’í.org/story/1027.

48 “Situation of Bahá’ís in Iran,” Bahá’I International Community,á’ís/current-situation#0pkshUoY2CXJHwT2.97 (accessed 5 February 2016).

49 “Ongoing Human Rights Violations in Iran Spotlighted by UN Vote,” Bahá’í World News Service, 18 December 2015,

50 “Naẓari Marājiʿi Taqlīd Darbāriyi Firqihyi Żālliyi Bahāʿīat (Qismati Sivvum),” Alef, 12 April 2010, (in Persian).


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