WASHINGTON, Sep. 24 1997
Iran's new president, Mohammed Khatami, should
work to end the persecution and widespread discrimination against religious
and ethnic minorities, says a leading U.S. human rights group.
A report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) accuses Iran of failing to protect
minorities from discrimination and says that Islamic authorities have
flagrantly persecuted other religious groups, particularly Bahá'ís and
"Constitutional provisions (giving) only qualified commitments to the
principle of non-discrimination have proved to be no protection against what
has become widespread, institutionalized discrimination and, in the case of
the Bahá'ís and Evengelicals, outright persecution," according to Hanny
Megally, director of HRW/Middle East Watch.
HRW and independent analysts, however, remain hopeful that Khatami, who
was elected by in a landslide victory last May, may be more sympathetic to
the minorities' plight. Last month, HRW sent a letter urging Khatami to
follow through on campaign promises "to make the rule of law the basis of
all aspects of society in Iran."
"The fact that Khatami made respect for the rule of law a major theme of
his campaign is good news, but we have to wait and see," says Elahe Hicks,
the main author of the new 36-page report.
Khatami has also written eloquently about freedom as a great achievement
of Western civilization, according to Richard Bulliet, director of Columbia
University's Middle East Institute. "That might permit one to hazard an
opinion that religious freedom might be an important concern of his."
Iran's constitution guarantees all minority and religious rights provided
they are consistent with "the limits of national law." Full exercise of
those rights are also qualified by the overriding position of Islam as
interpreted by the ruling circle of Shi'a clerics and the power of judges to
rule on the basis of Islamic law.
With a population of more than 65 million, Iran is one of the world's
most important multi-ethnic states. While almost two-thirds of the
population is ethnic Persian, large ethnic minorities include more than 15
million Azaris, several million Baluchis, more than five million Kurds, one
million Arabs, and several hundred thousand Turkamen and Lurs.
Most Kurds, Baluchis and Turkamen are Sunni Muslims. Smaller religious
minorities include Christians of various denominations, Bahá'ís,
Zoroastrians, and Jews. About 80 percent of the population are Shi'a
The smaller religious groups are suffering the greatest persecution in
the Islamic Republic today, according to the report, "Iran: Religious and
Of these, none has fared worse than members of the Bahá'í faith, which
number more than 300,000 in Iran, the home of its birth in the mid-19th
century. Bahá'í, some of whom were favored by the late Shah of Iran, has
long been regarded by the Shi'a Muslim establishment as a threat to Islam
and a tool of foreign powers, and the Shah's fall in 1979 produced some of
the most intense persecution of Bahá'í in their history. The faith lost
protections given other faiths under the Islamic Republic's constitution.
More than 200 Bahá'ís were executed in the first six years of the Islamic
revolution. Since 1983, Bahá'í assemblies and festivals have been banned;
participants have been prosecuted; and members have been pressured to adopt
Islam, according to the report. As recently as February, 1996, death
sentences on two men convicted of "engaging in Bahá'í activities" in 1993,
were confirmed by the supreme court.
In contrast, the government has mostly tolerated the church activities of
the roughly 200,000 Orthodox Christians who have lived in Iran for nearly
But Iran's Protestant churches, especially those which seek converts
among Muslims, have drawn the government's strong hostility, according to
the report, which cites their ties with churches in the United States and
Europe as the cause of official suspicion. Since 1994, four church leaders
have been slain "in circumstances suggesting government involvement," the
While Jews have generally not been individually persecuted because of
their religion, their Jewish identity has been emphasized by the official
press when they are charged with crimes. Of the roughly 75,000 members of
the Jewish community living in Iran in 1979, only about 25,000 remain,
according to the report.
Sunni Muslims, who constitute the majority in almost all other countries
of the Islamic world, have also suffered during the Islamic Republic, Middle
East Watch says. Their prayer leaders are often appointed by the central
authorities, and Shi'a clerics are encouraged to proselytize among them.
Several prominent Sunni leaders, one Kurd and three Baluchis, have died
or been killed in suspicious circumstances in recent years and the son of
Iran's most prominent Sunni cleric was gunned down in Pakistan last year,
allegedly by Iranian agents, the report says.
Because the largest ethnic minorities are mostly Sunni, the aggressive
Shi'ism of the ruling authorities has been a major source of conflict. This
is especially true for Baluchis, who live mainly in the southeastern part of
the country and who have long complained about institutionalized
discrimination against them.
Baluchis who have tried to organize their community politically have been
blocked, and some have charged that Teheran has launched a plan to change
the ethnic balance in major Baluchi cities, the report says.
Growing nationalism among the large Azari community, which is
concentrated in the northern part of the country, has drawn concern from
Teheran which, since the creation of neighboring Azerbaijan in 1991, has
denounced Azari leaders as separatists or Turkish spies. In March 1996,
central authorities disqualified an Azari candidate from Tabriz from running
in parliamentary elections, provoking widespread civil unrest in the
Like their cousins in Iraq and Turkey, the Kurds, concentrated in the
remote east, have long struggled for local autonomy, sometimes violently. An
armed Kurdish insurgency persists, and Teheran's efforts to fight it have
included the destruction of villages and population displacement, according
to the report.
Hicks noted that Khatami may try to push Teheran towards a more
During a campaign meeting just before the May elections, he was quoted by
local media as asking: "Who, more than the Kurds, can claim they are
Iranian." He went on to praise the Kurds as providing critical support for
the very creation of Iran.
DUBAI, Sept 24 1997
A U.S.-based human rights group on Wednesday
urged Iran's new president to stop what it said was discrimination against,
and in some cases persecution of, certain religious and ethnic minorities.
"Human Rights Watch urges the new government of President Mohammad
Khatami to implement enforceable legal safeguards available to all and to
root out discrimination on the basis of religion or ethnic origin," the New
York-based group said.
In a statement, it said the Iranian government had engaged in "the
flagrant persecution of religious minorities, notably Bahá'ís and evangelical
Analysts say evangelical Christians are pressured by Iranian authorities
because of the group's activities in converting Moslem Iranians. Other
Christian minorities, such as Armenians and Assyrians, limit their religious
activities to their own ethnic groups.
Many senior government and army positions in Iran are limited to Iran's
official religion which is Shi'ite Islam.
"Iran's constitution provides only qualified commitments to the
principle of non-discrimination on the basis of religion or ethnic identity,"
Hanny Megally, executive director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) Middle East,
said in the statement.
"In practice, these qualified provisions have proved to be no protection
against what has become widespread, institutionalised discrimination and, in
the case of Bahá'ís and evangelicals, outright persecution," Megally added.
Iran denies discrimination against ethnic groups and recognised
religious minorities -- Christians, Zoroastrians and Jews -- but Tehran does
not recognise the Bahá'í faith as a religion and considers it "a misleading
and wayward sect."
Iran rejects international human rights groups' criticism of its human
rights record as politically motivated.
HRW said Bahá'í assemblies have been banned since 1983 and participation
in Bahá'í activities is liable to prosecution.
Bahá'ís in the United States say more than 200 members of their faith
have been executed in Iran for their religious belief since the Islamic
revolution in 1979.