Iran: Religious Minority Groups


Approximately 89% of Iranians are Shia Muslims.[13]  The rest, including Baha’i, Christian, Zoroastrian, Sunni Muslim, and Jewish communities, constitute around 11%.  Despite their popularity in the country, the total membership of Sufi groups in the population is unclear due to a lack of reliable statistics. Reportedly, all religious minorities suffer varying degrees of officially sanctioned discrimination, particularly in the areas of employment, education, and housing.

According to a Human Rights Report 2006, released by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor on March 6, 2007, the Iranian government restricts freedom of religion.  There was a further deterioration of the poor status of respect for religious freedom during the reporting period, most notably for Baha’is and Sufi Muslims.[14]  There were reports of imprisonment, harassment, intimidation, and discrimination based on religious beliefs.  Government actions and rhetoric created a threatening atmosphere for nearly all religious minorities, especially Baha’is and Sufi Muslims.  To a lesser extent, Zoroastrians, evangelical Christians, and the small Jewish community were also targets of government harassment.

Government-controlled media, including broadcasting and print, intensified negative campaigns against religious minorities — particularly the Baha’is — following the June 2005 election of President Ahmadinejad.  According to a published report, several congressional resolutions have condemned Iran’s treatment of the Baha’is, including S.Con.Res. 57 (106th Congress), which passed the Senate on July 19, 2000, and H.Con.Res. 257, which passed the House on September 19, 2000.  In the 109th Congress, partly in response to a May 2006 wave of arrests of Baha’is in Shiraz, H.Con.Res. 415, which passed the House on September 19, 2006, requested that the Administration emphasize that it regards Iran’s treatment of the Baha’is as a significant factor in U.S. Iran policy.[15]

The Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) closely monitors all religious activities.  Individually, disciples of recognized religious minorities are not required to register with the authorities. However, their religious, community, and cultural organizations; schools; and public events are supervised closely.

Some of the major Iranian primary religious minorities include Sunni Muslims, Baha’is, Christians, and Jews.[16]


Sunni Muslims

Iranian Sunni Muslims are the largest religious minority.[17]  The majority of Kurds, virtually all Baluchis and Turkomen, and a minority of Arabs are Sunnis, as are small communities of Persians in southern Iran and the region of Khorasan.[18]  Generally speaking, Iranian Shias are inclined to recognize Sunnis as fellow Muslims, but as those whose religion is incomplete.  Reportedly Iran’s Sunni population, which includes Kurds and Baluchis, complain that there is not a single Sunni mosque in the country (the authorities reportedly blocked one from recently being built in Tehran) and that the government has barred public displays of Sunni religion and culture. In towns with mixed populations in West Azarbaijan, the Persian Gulf region, and Baluchestan va Sistan, tensions between Shias and Sunnis existed both before and after the Iranian Revolution. Religious tensions have been highest during major Shia observances, especially Moharram.



There are an estimated 300,000 to 350,000 adherent Baha’is throughout the country.  Iranian Baha’is are not allowed to teach or practice their faith or to maintain links with co-religionists abroad.  Tehran continues to imprison and detain Baha’is based on their religious beliefs. Authorities in Tehran consider Baha’is as apostates because of their claim to a religious revelation subsequent to that of the Prophet Mohammed.  Reportedly, the Baha’i faith is defined by the government as a political “sect” linked to the Pahlavi monarchy and, therefore, as counterrevolutionary.  Unlike the recognized religious minorities who are allowed by the government to establish community centers and certain cultural, social, sports, or charitable associations, followers of the Baha’i faith have been denied the right to assemble officially or to maintain administrative institutions since 1983. 

The property rights of Baha’is generally are disregarded.  Properties belonging to the Baha’i community as a whole, such as places of worship and graveyards, were confiscated by the government in the years after the 1979 revolution and, in some cases, defiled. The government’s seizure of Baha’i personal property, as well as its denial of access to education and employment, continue to erode the economic base of the Baha’i community.



Recently, the authorities have become increasingly assertive in curbing proselytizing activities by evangelical Christians, whose services were conducted in Persian. Government officials closed evangelical churches and arrested converts.  Members of evangelical congregations are required to carry membership cards, photocopies of which must be provided to the authorities.  Worshipers are subject to identity checks by authorities posted outside congregation centers.  Meetings for evangelical services are restricted by the authorities to Sundays, and church officials were ordered to inform the Ministry of Information and Islamic Guidance before admitting new members to their congregations.  Mistreatment of evangelical Christians has continued in recent years. Christian groups have reported instances of government harassment of churchgoers in Tehran, in particular of worshipers at the Assembly of God congregation in the capital. Cited instances of harassment included conspicuous monitoring outside Christian premises by Revolutionary Guards to discourage Muslims or converts from entering church premises and demands for presentation of identity papers of worshipers inside.



Even though Jews are one of the recognized religious minorities, allegations of official discrimination are frequent.  The government’s anti-Israel stance, and the perception of much of the population that Jewish citizens supported Zionism and the state of Israel, created a threatening atmosphere for the small community.  Jews limited their contact with, and did not openly express support for, Israel out of fear of reprisal. Recent anti-American and anti-Israeli demonstrations included the denunciation of Jews, as opposed to the past practice of denouncing only Israel and Zionism, adding to the threatening atmosphere for the community.  Jewish leaders were reportedly reluctant to draw attention to official mistreatment of their community due to fear of government reprisal. The 30,000-member Jewish community (the largest in the Middle East outside of Israel) enjoys somewhat more freedoms than Jewish communities in several other Muslim states.  The Iranian Jews are allowed to visit Israel. However, the freedom of Iranian Jews to practice their religion is limited, and Iranian Jews remain reluctant to speak out for fear of reprisals. During 1993-1998, Iran executed five Jews who were allegedly spying for Israel.[19]  In June 1999, Iran arrested 13 Jews (mostly teachers, shopkeepers, and butchers) from the Shiraz area that it said were part of an “espionage ring” for Israel.  After an April-June 2000 trial, 10 of the Jews and 2 Muslims accomplices were convicted on July 1, 2000, receiving sentences ranging from 4 to 13 years.  An appeals panel reduced the sentences, and all were released by April 2003.



[13] Military, “Iranian Religious Groups,” Global Security.Org, available at

[14] Iran: International Religious Freedom Report 2006, released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, at

[15] For further information and analysis on Iran and U.S. options, see CRS Report RL32048, Iran: U.S. Concerns and Policy Responses, by Kenneth Katzman.

[16] This section adapted from Military, “Iranian Religious Groups,” Global Security.Org, at

[17] U.S. Department of State: Iran: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2006, Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, March 6, 2007.

[18] Military, Iranian Religious Groups, Global Security.Org, at

[19] CRS Report RL32048, Iran: U.S. Concerns and Policy Responses, by Kenneth Katzman.

Posted on Aug 5, 2009, at:


4 Responses

  1. Ali

    August 7, 2009 10:56 pm

    This report is inaccurate. It states 89% of Iranians are Shia. It should say 98% of Iranians believe Islam is a divine religion. Then it needs to say of the 98% of this group what % follow what belief system. For example of the 98% less than 1% (basiji, hizbollahi, hujjati, etc.) follow Shia-Khamenei. Perhaps 5% follow Shia-RAfsanjani(bazaris, merchants, etc.) another huge % follow Ayatollah Montazeri, etc. To group all these diverse people into one bucket is like saying Greek and Persian empire and Darius and Alexander were really one and the same.

    If any of these statisticians that write these reports take their glasses off and look inside Iran, they’ll see that Rafsanjani and Grand Ayatollahs such as Ayatollah Montazeri (white turbans) far out number Kyhan and its Ayas (black turbans). Add to that Moussavi’s camp and you’ll see why Aya Khamenei’s black turbans are fighting for their lives. They are being run over by the Rafsanjani coalition.

  2. Ali

    August 7, 2009 11:10 pm

    So one may then say why is it that black turbans control the levers in Iran. It’s simple. Black turbans had backbone and white turbans had wishbone. Now they have shifted. Of course there are those white turbans like Dorri Najafabadi who works both camps. But there aren’t that many because neither camp trusts them. Now however that through Divine assistance the veils have been lifted, it should be easier for everyone in the world to see the reality of things in Iran and report correct numbers instead of 30 year old hand me down numbers.

  3. Ramin

    August 10, 2009 12:18 pm

    It is true 98% of Iranians are on paper believers in the Divine origin of Islam and call themselves Muslims, there is no denying this. The facts given in this article are in harmony with these figures. In fact if belief in the Divine origin of Islam is the criteria, then together with the Baha’is, almost 100% of Iranians believe this truth.

    The matter at stake here is the mistreatment meted out to these minorities. The Baha’i teachings forbid its followers from involving themselves in political rhetoric or partisanship. Ours is simply to point out the truth.


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