This report examines state-sponsored discrimination and other violations of the human rights of individuals from minority communities within Iran. Iran's population of more than sixty million contains within it sizable ethnic minorities, including Azaris, Baluchis, Kurds, Arabs, Turkamen, Lurs, and other ethnic groups. Most Kurds, Baluchis and Turkamen are Sunni Muslims, making them part of a religious minority as well: Shi'a Islam is the religion of approximately 80 percent of Iranians and is established by the constitution as the state religion. There are also smaller minorities, including Christians of various denominations, Baha'is, Zoroastrians, and Jews.
Iran is obliged by its treaty commitments to provide a full panoply of rights to its citizens without discrimination on such bases as "race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status." These include the basic right to equality before the law, as well as the right of equal access to education, health care, professional opportunities, and housing, among many others.
Constitutional provisions upholding the rights of minorities are qualified by reference to the "limits of national law," and to the overriding position of Islam as interpreted by the ruling circle of Shi'a clerics. In the area of freedom of religion, the legal framework is contradictory due to the power residing in judges to issue rulings based on their own interpretation of Islamic law.
Despite language in the constitution apparently designed to outlaw discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities, clear discrimination exists in the text of the penal and civil codes.
Hostility towards Baha'is has resulted in the severe persecution of individual members of the Baha'i community and little or no toleration of organized religious activities by groups of Baha'is. Since 1983 Baha'i assemblies have been banned, and participation in Baha'i activities, such as festivals or acts of worship in private homes, is liable to prosecution.
The government's intention to punish Baha'is for their religious beliefs is at best only thinly veiled. Official documents such as the 1991 memorandum from the Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council clearly delineate an official policy of persecution. The egregious cases of Baha'is sentenced to death, described in this report, serve only to underline the severity of the persecution. In its treatment of the Baha'i minority, the government is far from meeting its obligations to respect freedom of religion.
The Western origins of Iran's Protestant churches and their enduring links with similar congregations in the United States and Europe, together with the churches' readiness to accept and even seek out Muslim converts, have fueled government suspicion and hostility towards Iran's Protestants. In addition to several high-profile cases in the past three years in which leaders of Protestant churches were killed, there are many other credible reports of detention and harassment of converts from Islam to Christianity-stark violations of freedom of religion.
Sunni Muslims are by far Iran's largest religious minority, making up as much as 20 percent of the population. The great majority of Iranian Kurds, Baluchis and Turkamen are Sunni Muslims. The ascendancy of the Shi'a clergy since the formation of the Islamic Republic has accentuated Sunni grievances.
Sunni Kurds have seen their aspirations for greater autonomy and respect of their rights to religious freedom denied. Friday prayer leaders, even in the Sunni mosques, are appointed by the central authorities. Shi'a proselytizing is encouraged. Several prominent Sunni leaders, including Kurds and Baluchis, have been killed in recent years in circumstances that suggest the involvement of the authorities in their deaths. The recent arrests and killings of Baluchi religious leaders is taking on the appearance of a concerted campaign to suppress Baluchi claims for parity for Sunni Islam and respect for Baluchi cultural and linguistic traditions.
This report identifies areas in which the treatment of ethnic minorities has failed to meet the standard of equal treatment under the law for all Iranians regardless of their ethnic origin, set forth in the Iranian constitution and instruments of international law.
The Kurds are concentrated in a remote and underdeveloped area, far from the centers of political power. An armed Kurdish insurgency has clashed with the Iranian military. Civilians have been among the main victims of the conflict as villages have been destroyed and their populations dispersed, and broad areas have been seeded with landmines.
The situation of Iran's fifteen to twenty million Azaris differs in almost every respect from that of the Kurds. The Azaris inhabit a strategically important prosperous area in northwest Iran, relatively close to Tehran. Azaris are predominately Shi'a whereas the majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims. It is hard to find evidence of discrimination against Azaris in economic, professional or educational fields.
The main grievances of the Azari community are cultural. As Azari nationalism has come to prominence so the central authorities have begun to take measures to counter it. Those who speak up for Azari rights are labeled by government officials and the state-controlled media as separatists or Turkish spies. The case of Muhammad Ali Chehregani, a candidate from Tabriz in the March 1996 parliamentary elections whose disqualification from the ballot sparked widespread civil unrest in Tabriz, serves to demonstrate the sensitivity of the Azari issue.
The Baluchis complain that as a Sunni minority they face institutionalized discrimination by the Shi'a state. In addition they complain of discrimination in the economic, educational and cultural fields. Attempts by the Baluchis to form political organizations to advance their interests have been blocked by the authorities. Baluchi sources claim that a systematic plan has been set in motion by the authorities over the past two years to pacify the region by changing the ethnic balance in major Baluchi cities such as Zahedan, Iran-Shahr, Chabahar, and Khash.
Iranian Arabs, an ethnic minority centered in southwest Iran, also have grievances over restrictions on their political organizations, on their language and culture, and on their right to participate effectively in decisions affecting the area in which they live.
In an atmosphere in which the rule of law is beset by uncertainty and contradictions, vulnerable groups such as religious and ethnic minorities are likely to be among the primary targets of abuse. Isolated cases in which the courts have ruled in favor of religious minorities do not disprove the observation that courts cannot be relied upon to protect for religious minorities the rights provided in domestic law. An improvement in the situation of religious and ethnic minorities will only be brought about with the implementation of practical enforceable legal safeguards available to all. Iran is obliged by its commitments in international law to remove all legislation that discriminates explicitly or implicitly on grounds of religion or ethnic origin.