Iran’s Assault on Religious Freedom May Worsen

By: Fernando Perez

Christians in Iran have faced a wave of arrests since the disputed presidential elections in June 2009.

Christians in Iran have faced a wave of arrests since the disputed presidential elections in June 2009. Persecution intensified as international pressure began to build over Iran’s secret nuclear enrichment program leading to sanctions in the following months. And now, when the United States is likely to announce more sanctions, the going may get even tougher for minorities in this Shi’a-majority nation.

Authorities began to arrest Christians and members of other minorities following protests, known as the Green Revolution, over Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s claimed victory in the 2009 elections that were believed to be rigged. President Ahmadinejad, in power since 2005, curtailed civil liberties, brutally attacked protesters, arrested hundreds and executed a few. Persecution of minorities was part of Iran’s attempt to tighten control over all aspects of people’s lives in the face of domestic insecurity. Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, who is facing death for apostasy, was also arrested from the city of Rasht in northern Gilan Province not too long after the protests.

Iran’s leadership alleges that the West, particularly its chief enemy, the United States, wants to incite an Iranian civil war. In fact, authoritarianism in Iran dates back to the early 1950s when a coup d’état was perceived to be instigated by the U.K. and U.S. And it is believed that this perception of “foreign influence” culminated in the Iranian Revolution leading to the establishment of the Islamic republic in 1979.

The accusation that the United States is seeking to topple the government was also made during the Green Revolution. This is why U.S. President Barack Obama only called for restraint, opting for a low-key response lest Iran’s political opposition lost its legitimacy with U.S. involvement. However, at the G20 summit in September 2009, Obama and leaders from Britain, France, and Germany accused Iran of building a secret uranium-enrichment facility near the holy city of Qom. U.S. sanctions followed in February 2010 against the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution for its involvement in missile and nuclear programs. Also known as Revolutionary Guards, it’s a military wing tasked to protect the country’s Islamic system.

In June 2010, UN Security Council led by the U.S. announced a fourth round of sanctions, placing new bans on Iranian investments, restricting sales of weapons, and imposing penalties on companies connected to Revolutionary Guards. Unilateral U.S. and European Union sanctions followed – at a time when Ahmadinejad was struggling to offset inflation. Again in September 2010, the U.S. imposed its first sanctions on Iran for human rights violations. Previous sanctions were mostly against Iran’s nuclear enrichment and support for anti-Israel militant groups.

These sanctions, particularly by the UN, led to further restriction of civil rights in Iran, and many more Christians were arrested. Between July and December 2010, it is estimated that authorities arrested more than 160 Christians, and courts sentenced two pastors, including Nadarkhani, to death for apostasy.

The arrests in this country of 75 million people continue. Most recently, in the third week of December 2011, authorities in the southern town of Ahwaz raided an Assemblies of God-affiliated church and detained the entire congregation, including children attending Sunday school, according to the London-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

Persecution of religious minorities, including Sunni and Baha’i communities but particularly the country’s roughly 300,000 Christians, may further intensify in 2012 given that Iran seeks to gain a greater control over political and civil aspects of people’s lives to consolidate power at home whenever international pressure increases. The United States is currently readying economic sanctions to reduce Iran’s oil revenue in a bid to deter it from pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

Iranian authorities seem to be reacting, as expected. Iranian Vice President Mohammad-Reza Rahimi has threatened to block oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz that is used to transport roughly 20 percent of the world’s oil supply. This reaction once again indicates Iran’s sense of insecurity which may lead to repression of civil rights.

Civil rights restrictions in Iran put religious minorities, which are demonized as “parasites,” at a great risk because religion plays a central role in this country. The survival of the Islamic Republic is the top priority of Iran’s elite as well as excuse for brutality. For Shi’a Iran – and not Sunni Saudi Arabia – is the closest example of an Islamic nation that world’s conservative Muslims dream of. The only problem Sunnis have is that Iran is based on Shi’a faith.

The Twelver Shi’a branch of Islam is the official state religion in Iran. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance monitors all religious minorities. Christians are not allowed to carry out any activity outside church walls. Evangelism can lead to arrest and torture or even execution.

The constitution grants equal rights to all Iranians irrespective of ethnicity, color, or language – but not irrespective of religion. All basic freedoms are subject to Islamic principles – as the State interprets them. All non-Muslim Iranians are required to mention their religion on census forms. Non-Muslims cannot work in the government or commissions in the armed services. There is a provision for minority representation in the parliament, but the Christian quota is only for the Orthodox denomination, and not for Protestants or Roman Catholics. For admission in universities, all students must pass a test in Islamic theology.

Worse, a Muslim can kill a non-Muslim in Iran and get away with it by paying blood-money, which too can be waived off by courts, without any jail term. If a Muslim kills a Baha’i or an “apostate,” authorities will not take any action, as if they were not human beings. And if a non-Muslim man has sexual relations with a Muslim woman, he faces death.

Seeking change in Iran has been extremely difficult for the international community. Tehran and Washington have had no relations for 30 years, and three decades of sanctions have not shown many results. Perhaps, Tehran has got used to sanctions.

Besides, China and Russia still do business with Iran, a regional power that plays a crucial role in world economy due to its large reserves of petroleum and natural gas. Iran also plays a role in international politics as it controls Lebanon-based Hezbollah and Gaza-based Hamas, and competes with the U.S. in the Middle East. Since some key U.S. allies have fallen as a result of the Arab Spring, Tehran now appears to have a greater sense of power against America as well as Saudi Arabia.

However, the fact that Iran reacts to sanctions and public condemnation by the West reveals that international pressure affects Tehran. Sanctions hinder economic growth and global rise, which are part of ambitions of most nations that base their nationalism on religion.

Sanctions should perhaps carry on but with simultaneous efforts by the United States towards dialogue and negotiations. It’s true that we have not seen much change in Iran’s nuclear enrichment and anti-Israel policies – which sanctions target the most. But seeking change in civil rights will perhaps be less challenging.

The people of Iran, once they are allowed to exercise their civil rights, will be best positioned to influence their government and bring about change. We need to urge the United States and other international players to value religious and other civil freedoms as much as deterrence of nuclear weapons.