Religious Cleansing in Iran
Iran treats non-Muslims as harshly as political dissidents. Why doesn't the West notice?
‘Every aspect of a non-Muslim is unclean,” proclaimed Iran’s late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini. He explained that non-Muslims rank between “feces” and “the sweat of a camel that has consumed impure food.” Other prominent ayatollahs, including Ahmad Jannati, the current chairman of the Guardian Council, have made similar utterances.
Thus Iran’s Zoroastrians, Jews, Mandeans, Christians, and Bahais are subordinated and indeed treated as a fifth column by the revolutionary Islamic Republic. No matter that most of these religious groups were established in Iran before Islam arrived there; none are accepted by Iran’s Shiite rulers as fully Iranian. With the recent controversial presidential election, the scapegoating of non-Muslims as agents of the United States, Israel, Britain, and the deposed monarchy reached new heights. Seven Bahai leaders and two Christian converts are in prison and will soon be put on trial for their lives, while other non-Muslims are suffering intensified government repression.
Non-Muslim communities collectively have diminished to no more than 2 percent of Iran’s 71 million people. Forty years ago, under the Shah, a visitor would have seen a relatively tolerant society. Iran now appears to be in the final stages of religious cleansing. Pervasive discrimination, intimidation, and harassment have prompted non-Muslims to flee in disproportionately high numbers.
Like political dissidents, these religious minorities are a moderating force against Iranian Shiite extremism. Also, their mere presence ensures a modicum of ideological diversity and pluralism in the face of the regime’s brutal insistence on conformity. But unlike the dissidents, the religious minorities have attracted little international concern, and their plight is poorly understood.
Iran’s constitution requires that laws and regulations be based on Islamic criteria, which mandate inferior status for three non-Muslim faiths, while withholding all rights and protections from all other faiths. Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian (specifically, Assyrian and Armenian) live in a modern version of dhimmi status — the protected though subjugated condition of “people of the Book” dating back to medieval times. While these three groups are allotted seats in the legislative assembly (a total of five out of 290 seats), they are barred from seeking high public office in any of the three branches of government.
Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, and evangelical churches are not regarded as heritage communities and are afforded few rights. Christian worship must be in the Assyrian or Armenian languages, not in Farsi. Several Protestant and evangelical leaders have been murdered by government agents in recent years, and last year reports surfaced of a renewed crackdown against churches operating in people’s homes, with reportedly 50 or more arrests. Mandeans have sought in vain for official recognition based on their historic ties to John the Baptist.
Members of the Bahai faith, an independent religion that originated in 19th-century Iran, are treated far worse: as heretics to be persecuted outright. According to Iranian law, Bahai blood is considered mobah — that is, it can be spilled with impunity. Over two hundred Bahais have been executed since 1979. “An enemy of Islam” was written on some of their corpses. In 1979 the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) demolished the house of the Bab, a sacred Bahai site in the southwestern city of Shiraz, and the place where it stood has since been paved over for an Islamic center. The burial shrine of Quddus, a prominent follower of the Bab, was destroyed at Babol in 2004. Bahais can gather only underground — at private homes or in surreptitiously rented halls.
Converts from Islam to any other faith are regarded by the state as apostates who can be put to death. Iran bans non-Muslims not only from proselytizing but from most public religious expression in the presence of Muslims. The Intelligence Ministry closely monitors Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian religious communities. These groups are routinely denied permission for formal contacts with foreign co-religionists.
Among these religious groups, initiation ceremonies, weddings, and funerals must be discreet affairs. Even so, they run the risk of raids by the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance to ensure adherence to “Islamic standards.” A 2004 raid of one gathering resulted in the arrest of 80 Christians for following their own mores in women’s dress and in allowing men and women to mingle.
In Shiraz, a synagogue, a church, and a fire temple are located in close proximity to one another. Anti-Pahlavi graffiti there are refreshed regularly to remind Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians that their loyalty remains suspect. Jews often are accused of aiding Israel. In 2000, eleven prominent Iranian Jews were convicted of spying for Israel.
The tomb of Daniel, from the Old Testament, is exploited by the regime to promote its relentless anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli propaganda. One mural features an imaginary scene of Iranian forces joining Palestinian fighters in seizing Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. Nearby slogans denounce Jews, Zionism, and Israel. Jews have stopped visiting the site altogether.
Though the constitution permits Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians to “act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education,” Iran’s Education Ministry administers minority schools and imposes a state-approved religious textbook. Many minority secondary schools have been nationalized. The surviving private schools typically have Muslim directors. All university applicants must pass an examination in Islamic theology. Bahais have been essentially barred from higher education.
Zoroastrian schools must display towering portraits of Iran’s supreme leaders. Quranic quotations and revolutionary slogans are painted on their interior walls with the forced participation of the schoolchildren, while mullahs and revolutionary guards chant Shia praises.
The same displays are forced on churches, especially those not within Armenian or Assyrian neighborhoods. Churchgoers are taunted as infidels by Pasdaran and by Basij militiamen.
Religious minorities experience high unemployment and economic impoverishment, since so much of the economy, including the oil industry, is controlled by the state. Minority storeowners must display prominent signs indicating they are najasa (ritually unclean). Bahais have no property rights, and their homes and business are vulnerable to confiscation.
Non-Muslims are not excluded from the compulsory military service, however, and they report being deployed for especially hazardous assignments. During the Iran-Iraq war, they were routinely transferred to suicide brigades. Non-Muslim communities maintain small “martyrs’ walls” as memorials to their war dead.
Any non-Muslim responsible for a Muslim’s death faces capital punishment, in accordance with medieval Islamic jurisprudence. Conversely, Muslims do not face capital punishment or even long prison sentences for murdering a non-Muslim, though they are fined. Exceptions are in the murder of a Bahai or a Muslim apostate — no compensation whatsoever is required. In a court proceeding, a non-Muslim’s testimony is valued at half that of a Muslim’s. A non-Muslim who converts to Islam becomes the sole inheritor of his or her family’s assets.
President Ahmadinejad denies the Holocaust, threatens Israel, and promotes the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as genuine. He has reportedly vowed the end of Christianity’s development in Iran. Under his presidency, life has only become more difficult for religious minorities. Their social organizations have been subject to intrusive investigations and threatened with criminal charges on such grounds as rejecting “cultural conformity” and weakening “the centrality of the Islamic regime.” A new committee in Qom has been empowered to “combat activities of members of religious minorities.” The five minority parliamentarians, like 175 of their colleagues, left Tehran to avoid having to congratulate the president upon his reelection, prompting a new round of raids on synagogues, churches, and fire temples.
Iran’s non-Muslims cannot defend their own rights. In 2005, the Zoroastrian parliamentarian Kourosh Niknam tried to do so, by giving a speech protesting a slur against non-Muslims by the head of the Guardian Council. He was prosecuted for failing to show respect for Iran’s leaders but released with a stern admonishment in response to domestic and international pressure.
Iran’s political dissidents are defended by the West. Its diverse non-Muslim minorities ask why they’ve been forgotten.
– Jamsheed K. Choksy is a professor of Iranian studies and former director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program at Indiana University and serves as a Member of the National Council on the Humanities. Nina Shea directs the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and serves on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The views expressed herein are their own.