U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious
Freedom for 1999: Iran
Released by the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
September 9, 1999
Section I. Freedom of Religion
The Government restricts freedom of religion. The Constitution declares
that the "official religion of Iran is Islam and the doctrine followed
is that of Ja'fari (Twelver) Shi'ism." It also states that "other Islamic
denominations are to be accorded full respect," and designates
Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians as the only "recognized religious
minorities," which, "within the limits of the law", are permitted to
perform their religious rites and ceremonies and "to act according to
their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education."
Although the Constitution states that "the investigation of individuals'
beliefs is forbidden" and that "no one may be molested or taken to task
simply for holding a certain belief," the adherents of religions not
specifically protected under the Constitution do not enjoy freedom of
activity. This situation most directly affects the 300,000 to 350,000
followers of the Baha'i Faith in the country.
The central feature of the country's Islamic republican system is rule
by a "religious jurisconsult." Its senior leadership, including the
Supreme Leader of the Revolution, the President, the head of the Judiciary,
and the Speaker of the Islamic Consultative Assembly (Parliament), is
composed principally of Shi'a clergymen.
Religious activity is monitored closely by the Ministry of Islamic
Culture and Guidance and by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security
(MOIS). Adherents of recognized religious minorities are not required
to register individually with the Government, although their community,
religious, and cultural events and organizations, as well as schools,
are monitored closely. Baha'is are not recognized by the Government as
a legitimate religious group but are considered an outlawed political
organization. Registration of Baha'i adherents is a police function.
Evangelical Christian groups have been pressured by government authorities
to compile and hand over membership lists for their congregations.
Evangelicals have resisted this demand.
The population is approximately 99 percent Muslim, of which 89 percent
are Shi'a and 10 percent are Sunni (mostly Turkomen, Arabs, Baluchs, and
Kurds living in the southwest, southeast, and northwest). Baha'i,
Christian, Zoroastrian, and Jewish communities constitute less than 1
percent of the population. Estimates on the size of the Jewish community
vary from 25,000 to 40,000. These figures represent a substantial
reduction from the estimated 75,000 to 80,000 Jews who resided in the
country prior to the 1979 Revolution.
The Christian community is estimated at approximately 117,000 persons
according to government figures. Of these the majority consists of ethnic
Armenians and AssyroChaldeans. Protestant denominations and evangelical
churches also are active; although nonethnically based faith groups report
a greater degree of restriction imposed by authorities on their activities.
Sufi Brotherhoods are popular, but there are no reliable figures available
to judge their true size.
The U.N. Special Representative for Human Rights in Iran noted in his
September 1998 report frequent assertions that religious minorities are,
by law and practice, barred from being elected to a representative body
(except to the seats in the Majles reserved for minorities, as provided
for in the Constitution) and from holding senior government or military
Members of religious minorities are allowed to vote, but they may not
run for President. All religious minorities suffer varying degrees of
officially sanctioned discrimination, particularly in the areas of
employment, education, and housing (see Section II).
Members of religious minorities are generally barred from becoming
school principals. Applicants for publicsector employment are screened
for their adherence to Islam. The law stipulates penalties for government
workers who do not observe "Islam's principles and rules." Religious
minorities cannot serve in the army, the judiciary, and the security
services. The Constitution states that "the Army of the Islamic Republic
of Iran must be an Islamic army, i.e., committed to an Islamic ideology
and the people, and must recruit into its service individuals who have
faith in the objectives of the Islamic Revolution and are devoted to the
cause of achieving its goals." Baha'is are prohibited from government
University applicants are required to pass an examination in Islamic
theology. Although publicschool students receive instruction in Islam,
this requirement limits the access of most religious minorities to higher
education. Applicants for publicsector employment similarly are
screened for their adherence to Islam.
The Government allows recognized religious minorities to conduct
religious education of their adherents. This includes separate and
privately funded Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian schools. The
Ministry of Education, which imposes certain curriculum requirements,
supervises these schools. With few exceptions, the directors of these
private schools must be Muslim. Attendance at these schools is not
mandatory for recognized religious minorities. All textbooks used in
course work must be approved for use by the Ministry of Education,
including religious texts. Religious texts in non Persian languages
require approval by the authorities for use. This requirement imposes
sometimes significant translation expenses on minority communities.
Recognized religious minorities may provide religious instruction
in nonPersian languages but often come under pressure from the
authorities when conducting such instruction in Persian. In particular,
evangelical Christian and Jewish communities have suffered harassment
and arrest by authorities for the printing of materials or delivery
of sermons in Persian.
Recognized religious minorities are allowed by the Government to
establish community centers and certain cultural, social, sports, or
charitable associations that they finance themselves. This does not
apply to the Baha'i community, which since 1983 has been denied the
right to assemble officially or to maintain administrative institutions.
Because the Baha'i Faith has no clergy, the denial of the right to
form such institutions and elect officers has threatened its existence.
Religious minorities suffer discrimination in the legal system,
receiving lower awards in injury and death lawsuits and incurring
heavier punishments than Muslims. Muslim men are free to marry
nonMuslim women, but the opposite does not apply. Marriages between
Muslim women and nonMuslim men are not recognized.
There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom
during the period covered by this report. The Government continues
to restrict religious freedom.
The Government is highly suspicious of any proselytizing of Muslims
by nonMuslims and can be harsh in meting out its response, in particular
against Baha'is and evangelical Christians. The Government regards
the Baha'i community, whose faith originally derives from a strand
of Islam, as a "misguided" or "wayward" sect. The Government has
fueled antiBaha'i and antiJewish sentiment in the country for
The Government does not ensure the right of citizens to change or
renounce their religious faith. Apostasy, specifically conversion from
Islam, can be punishable by death.
Although Sunni Muslims are accorded full respect under the terms
of the Constitution, some groups claim discrimination on the part
of the Government. In particular, Sunnis cite the lack of a Sunni
mosque in Tehran and claim that authorities refuse to authorize
construction of a Sunni place of worship in the capital.
Human Rights Watch reported in 1998 the killing of Sunni prayer
leader Molavi Imam Bakhsh Narouie in the province of Sistan va
Baluchistan in the southeast. This led to protests from the local
community, which believed that government authorities were involved
in the murder.
Majdhub Alishahi, an adherent of the Sufi tradition, reportedly was
executed on charges of adultery and homosexuality after a coerced
confession in 1996. Sufi organizations outside the country reported
an increasing level of repression by the authorities of Sufi religious
practices during the period covered by this report.
The Government figures reported by the United Nations in 1996
place the size of the Zoroastrian community in the country at
approximately 35,000 adherents. Zoroastrian groups cite a larger
figure of approximately 60,000, according to the same United Nations
report. Zoroastrians are mainly ethnic Persians concentrated in the
cities of Tehran, Kerman, and Yazd. Zoroastrianism was the official
religion of the preIslamic Sassanid Empire and thus has played a
central role in Iranian history. There were no reports of government
persecution of the Zoroastrian religious community in the country.
The largest nonMuslim minority is the Baha'i Faith, estimated at
about 300,000 to 350,000 adherents throughout the country. The Baha'i
Faith originated in Iran during the 1840's as a reformist movement
within Shi'a Islam. Initially it attracted a wide following among
Shi'a clergy. The political and religious authorities of that time
joined to suppress the movement, and since then the hostility of the
Shi'a clergy to the Baha'i Faith has remained intense. Baha'is are
considered apostates because of their claim to a valid religious
revelation subsequent to that of Muhammad. The Baha'i Faith is defined
by the Government as a political sect historically linked to the Shah's
regime and, hence, as counterrevolutionary and characterized by its
espionage activities for the benefit of foreign entities, particularly
Israel. Historically at risk in the country, Baha'is often have suffered
increased levels of persecution during times of political ferment. The
Baha'is also faced discrimination under the Shah. Baha'i groups have
alleged that prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, previous governments
occasionally used Baha'is as scapegoats for various difficulties,
allowing elements within the clerical establishment to repress Baha'i
Baha'is may not teach or practice their faith or maintain links with
coreligionists abroad. The fact that the Baha'i world headquarters is
situated in what is now the state of Israel (established by the founder
of the Baha'i Faith in the 19th century in what was then Ottoman
controlled Palestine) exposes Baha'is to government charges of "espionage
on behalf of Zionism," in particular when caught communicating with or
addressing monetary contributions to the Baha'i Faith headquarters.
Broad restrictions on Baha'is appear to be geared to destroying
them as a community. They repeatedly have been offered relief from
persecution if they were prepared to recant their faith. Baha'i
marriages are not recognized by the Government, leaving Baha'i women
open to charges of prostitution. Children of Baha'i marriages are not
recognized as legitimate and, therefore, are denied inheritance rights.
Baha'i sacred and historical properties have been confiscated
systematically. Baha'is are not allowed to bury and honor their dead
in keeping with their religious tradition, while historic Baha'i
gravesites have been confiscated and in many cases desecrated or
destroyed. In October 1998, three Bahai's were arrested in Damavand,
a city north of Tehran, on the grounds that they had buried their dead
without government authorization.
Ruhollah Rowhani, a Baha'i, was executed in July 1998 after having
served 9 months in solitary confinement on a charge of apostasy
stemming from allegedly having converted a Muslim woman to the Baha'i
Faith. The woman concerned asserted that her mother was a Baha'i and
that she herself had been raised a Baha'i. Rowhani was not accorded a
public trial or sentencing for his alleged crime, and no sentence was
announced prior to his execution.
The Government continued to imprison and detain persons based on
their religious beliefs.
Two other Baha'is, Sirus ZabihiMoghaddam and Hadayat Kashefi
Najafabadi, were tried alongside Rowhani and later sentenced to death
by a revolutionary court in Mashad for the exercise of their Baha'i
Faith. Unofficial reports received by Baha'is outside the country in
March 1999 indicated that the death sentences against ZabihiMoghaddam
and KashefiNajafabadi had been lifted. The two remain in prison and
there is no confirmation of a new sentence. Four Baha'is are currently
on death rowtwo for "Zionist Baha'i activities" and two for apostasy.
Baha'i group meetings and religious education, which often take
place in private homes and offices, are curtailed severely. Public and
private universities continue to deny admittance to Baha'i students, a
particularly demoralizing blow to a community that traditionally has
placed a high value on education. Denial of access to higher education
appears aimed at the eventual impoverishment of the Baha'i community.
In September 1998, authorities launched a nationwide operation to
disrupt the activities of the Baha'i Institute of Higher Learning,
also known as the "Open University", established by the Baha'i
community shortly after the revolution to offer higher educational
opportunities to Baha'i students who had been denied access to the
country's high schools and universities. The Institute employed Baha'i
faculty and professors, many of whom had been dismissed from teaching
positions by the Government as a result of their faith, and conducted
classes in homes or offices owned or rented by Baha'is. In the assault,
which took place in at least 14 different cities, 36 faculty members
were arrested, and a variety of personal property, including books,
papers, and furniture, either were destroyed or confiscated. Government
interrogators sought to force the detained faculty members to sign
statements acknowledging the Open University was now defunct and
pledging not to collaborate with it in the future. Baha'is outside the
country report that none of the 36 detainees would sign the document.
All but 4 of the 36 persons detained during the September 1998 raid on
the Baha'i Institute were released.
In March 1999, Dr. Sina Hakiman, Farzad Khajeh Sharifabadi,
Habibullah Ferdosian Najafabadi, and Ziaullah Mirzapanah the four
remaining detainees from the September 1998 raid, were convicted
under Article 498 of the Penal Code and sentenced to prison terms
ranging from 3 to 10 years. In the court verdict, the four were accused
of having established a "secret organization" engaged in "attracting
youth, teaching against Islam, and teaching against the regime of the
Islamic Republic." According to Baha'i groups outside Iran, the four
taught general science and Persian literature courses. In July 1999,
Mirzapanah, who had been sentenced to 3 years in prison, became ill
and was hospitalized. Prison authorities allowed him to return home
upon his recovery on the understanding that they could find him whenever
The Government appears to adhere to a practice of keeping a small
number of Baha'is in arbitrary detention, some at risk of execution,
at any given time. There were 14 Baha'is reported to be under arrest
in Iran for practice of their faith as of June 1999, 4 under sentence
Baha'is regularly are denied compensation for injury or criminal
victimization. Government authorities claim that only Muslim plaintiffs
are eligible for compensation in these circumstances.
A 1993 law prohibits government workers from membership in groups
that deny the "divine religions", terminology that the Government uses
to label members of the Baha'i Faith. The law also stipulates penalties
for government workers who do not observe "Islamic principles and rules."
In 1993 the U.N. Special Representative reported the existence of a
government policy directive on the Baha'is. According to the directive,
the Supreme Revolutionary Council instructed government agencies to
block the progress and development of the Baha'i community, expel
Baha'i students from universities, cut the Baha'is' links with groups
outside Iran, restrict the employment of Baha'is, and deny Baha'is
"positions of influence," including those in education. The Government
claims that the directive is a forgery. However, it appears to be an
accurate reflection of current government practice.
Property belonging to the Baha'i community as a whole, such as
places of worship, remains confiscated. Baha'i graveyards have been
confiscated and defiled. Other government restrictions have been
eased; Baha'is currently may obtain food ration booklets and send
their children to public schools. However, the prohibition against
the admission of Baha'is to universities remains. Thousands of Baha'is
dismissed from government jobs in the early 1980's receive no
unemployment benefits and have been required to repay the Government
for salaries or pensions received from the first day of employment.
Those unable to do so face prison sentences.
In his 1996 report to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, the U.N.
Special Rapporteur on the Question of Religious Intolerance recommended
"that the ban on the Baha'i organization should be lifted to enable
it to organize itself freely through its administrative institutions,
which are vital in the absence of a clergy, and so that it can engage
fully in its religious activities." In response to the Special
Rapporteur's concerns with regard to the lack of official recognition
of the Baha'i Faith, government officials said that the Baha'is "are
not a religious minority, but a political organization which was
associated with the Shah's regime, is against the Iranian Revolution
and engages in espionage activities." According to the Special
Representative, government officials stated nonetheless that, as
individuals, all Baha'is were entitled to their beliefs and were
protected under other articles of the Constitution as citizens.
Authorities have become particularly vigilant in recent years in
curbing what is perceived as increasing proselytizing activities by
evangelical Christians, whose services are conducted in Persian.
Government officials have reacted to this perceived activity by
closing evangelical churches and arresting converts. Members of
evangelical congregations have been 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
have been restricted by the authorities to Sundays and church
officials have been ordered to inform the Ministry of Information
and Islamic Guidance before admitting new members to their
Christian groups point to the closure by authorities of the
Iranian Bible Society in February 1990 and the confiscation of
an estimated 20,000 Bibles as evidence of official discrimination.
The U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Question of Religious Intolerance
cited in his 1996 report that the alleged forced closure by the
authorities of Christian churches in Mashad (1988), Sari, (1988),
Kermanshah and Ahwaz (1988), Kerman (1992), and Gorgon (1992).
As conversion of a Muslim to a nonMuslim religion can be
considered apostasy under traditional Shari'a practices enforced
in the country, nonMuslims can not proselytize Muslims without
putting their own lives at risk. Evangelical church leaders are
subject to pressure from authorities to sign pledges that they
would not evangelize Muslims or allow Muslims to attend church
services. Evangelical communities report a heightened sense of
fear from authorities in the period since the murders of three
prominent evangelical ministers in 1994, Reverends Tatavous
Michaelian, Mehdi Dibaj, and Haik Hovsepian Mehr. Three female
members of the Mujahedine Khalq organization were convicted for
the murders of the three ministers; however, many observers believe
that authorities played a role in the killings.
One U.S.based organization reported 8 deaths of evangelical
Christians at the hands of authorities in the past 10 years and
between 15 and 23 disappearances in the year between November 1997
and November 1998.
Oppression of evangelical Christians continued during the
period covered by this report. Christian groups reported instances
of government harassment of churchgoers in Tehran, in particular
against worshipers at the Assembly of God congregation in the
capital. Instances of harassment cited 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.
Iranian Christians International (ICI) detailed the cases of Alireza
and Mahboobeh Mahmoudian, converts to Christianity and lay leaders
of the Saint Simon the Zealot Osgofi Church in Shiraz, who were
forced to leave the country permanently in June 1998 after continued
harassment by authorities. ICI reported that Alireza Mahmoudian
had lost his job on account of his conversion and had been beaten
repeatedly by Basiji and Ansare Hizbollah thugs on orders of
government officials from the Ministry of Islamic Guidance. His
wife, Mahboobeh, also had been the subject of intimidation,
principally through frequent and aggressive interrogation by
While Jews are a recognized religious minority, allegations of
official discrimination are frequent. The Government's antiIsrael
policies, coupled with a perception among radicalized Muslim elements
that Jewish citizens support Zionism and the State of Israel, create
a threatening atmosphere for the small Jewish community. Jewish
leaders are reportedly reluctant to draw attention to official
mistreatment of their community due to fear of government reprisal.
Some outside Jewish groups cite an increase in antiSemitic
propaganda in the official and semiofficial media as adding to
the pressure felt by the Jewish community. One example cited is
the periodic publication of the antiSemitic and fictitious Protocols
of the Elders of Zion, both by the Government and by periodicals
associated with hardline elements of the regime. In 1986 the
Iranian Embassy in London was reported to have published and distributed
the Protocols in English. The Protocols also were published in serial
form in the country in 1994 and again in January 1999. In the latter
occasion they were published in Sobh, a conservative monthly
publication reportedly aligned with the security services.
There appears to be little restriction or interference with
religious practice or education, but Jews were eased out of the
Government after 1979. Jews are permitted to obtain passports and
to travel outside the country but, with the exception of certain
business travelers, are required by the authorities to obtain
clearance (and pay additional fees) before each trip abroad. The
Government appears concerned about the emigration of Jews and
permission generally is not granted for all members of a Jewish
family to travel outside the country at the same time.
In March 1999, 13 Jews were arrested in the cities of Shiraz
and Isfahan. Among the group were several prominent rabbis, teachers
of Hebrew, and their students, including a 16 year old boy. As of
June 1999, judicial authorities had not completed their investigation
into the case and an indictment had not been made. However, the
investigation centered around charges of espionage on behalf of
Israel, an offense punishable by death. governments around the
world criticized the arrests and called for the safe treatment
of the detainees, who have been allowed only sporadic family visits
and deliveries of kosher food. They were not granted access to
Jewish groups outside Iran noted that the March arrest of the
13 Jewish individuals coincided with an increase in antiSemitic
propaganda in newspapers and journals associated with hardline
elements of the Government.
Human Rights Watch reported the death in May 1998 of Jewish
businessman Ruhollah KakhodahZadeh, who was hanged in prison without
a public charge or legal proceeding. Reports indicate that
KakhodahZadeh may have been killed for assisting Jews to emigrate.
Specifically, as an accountant, KakhodaZadeh provided power of
attorney services for Jews departing the country.
The Government restricts the movement of several senior religious
leaders, some of whom have been under house arrest for years, and
often charges members of religious minorities with crimes such as
drug offenses, "confronting the regime," and apostasy.
There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of
minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed
from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow
such citizens to be returned to the United States.
Section II. Societal Attitudes
The continuous activity of Iran's preIslamic, nonMuslim communities,
e.g., Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians, has accustomed the
population to the presence of nonMuslims in society. However,
government actions have fueled antiBaha'i and antiJewish sentiment,
creating a threatening atmosphere for both communities (see Section I).
The Jewish community has been reduced to nearly onehalf its
prerevolutionary size. Some of this emigration is connected with
the larger, general waves of departures following the establishment
of the Islamic Republic, but some also stems from perceived antiSemitism
on the part of the Government and within society.
The Government's antiIsrael policies, coupled with the perception
among some of the country's radicalized elements that Iranian Jews
support Zionism and the Israeli state, create a threatening atmosphere
for the Jewish community (see Section I). Many Jews have sought to
limit their contact with or support for the State of Israel out of
fear of reprisal.
NonMuslim owners of grocery shops are required to indicate their
religious affiliation on the front of their shops.
Sunni Muslims encounter religious discrimination at the local
level, and reports of discrimination against practitioners of the
Sufi tradition surfaced during the year.
Section III. U.S. Government Policy
The United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran and thus
cannot raise directly with the Government the restrictions it places
on religious freedom and other abuses that it commits against
adherents of minority religions. The U.S. Government makes its
position clear in public statements, support for relevant United
Nations and nongovernmental organization efforts, and in diplomatic
contacts with other countries.
The President has made a number of statements regarding the
treatment of religious minorities in Iran, including a statement
criticizing the execution of Ruhollah Rowhani, a member of the Baha'i
Faith, in June 1998, and a statement calling on the Government
to release 13 members of Iran's Jewish community accused of espionage
in June 1999. The Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs,
in testimony before Congress on Iran, has highlighted the plight
of Iran's religious minorities.
The U.S. Government has cosponsored each year since 1982 a
resolution regarding the situation of human rights in Iran offered
by the European Union at the annual meeting of the U.N. Commission
on Human Rights. The United States has supported a similar resolution
offered each year during the United Nations General Assembly. The
U.S. Government has supported strongly the work of the U.N. Special
Rapporteur on Human Rights for Iran and called on the Iranian
Government to grant him admission and allow him to conduct his
research (he has been denied entry visas since 1996).
The U.S. State Department spokesman on numerous occasions has
addressed the situation of the Baha'i and Jewish communities,
notably following the execution of Ruhollah Rowhani in June 1998,
following the Government's actions against the Baha'i Institute of
Higher Education in September 1998, and following the arrest of
13 members of the Iranian Jewish community in March 1999. The U.S.
Government has encouraged other governments to make similar statements
and has pressed those governments to raise the issue of religious
freedom in discussions with the Iranian Government.
©Copyright 1999, U.S. Department of State