The Baha'i Community
Baha'ism, a religion with more than six million adherents worldwide, was founded in Iran in the mid-nineteenth century by Mirza Husayn-Ali, who declared himself to be a prophet and adopted the name Baha'u'llah. He and his followers, known as Baha'is, quickly became subject to persecution. Baha'u'llah was exiled, first to Baghdad and then to Akka in Palestine, where he lived under imprisonment and house arrest by order of the Ottoman authorities until his death in 1892. The center of the new religion was established in Haifa, now in Israel, where it remains today.
The world's largest Baha'i community, numbering more than 300,000, is still to be found in Baha'u'llah's native Iran. The Baha'i community has had uneasy relations with Iran's rulers throughout its history. From its inception, in addition to being attacked as religious heretics for rejecting the orthodox Muslim belief that Muhammad is the "seal of the prophets" and that after Islam there will be no further divine revelation, Baha'is have been regarded with suspicion as agents of foreign powers sent to divide Muslims.11
Under the rule of the late Shah, Baha'is occupied some positions of influence at the palace, and the community prospered. However, with the overthrow of the Shah and the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, several factors converged to lead to the Baha'is suffering some of the most intense persecution of their history. First, the revolution brought to power Iran's clerical establishment, which saw it as its mission to stamp out heresy and religious deviancy in Iran. The constitution of the Islamic Republic pointedly omitted Baha'ism from the list of recognized religions. Second, the view that Baha'is had been favored by the Shah and the imperial regime made the community a natural target for reprisals from the new government. Finally, the Baha'is' association, in the minds of Iran's new leaders, with Iran's bitter history of foreign interference in its domestic affairs made them a target of suspicion. The fact that Baha'i world headquarters is situated in what is now the state of Israel only adds to this suspicion, giving the Baha'is an association, if only geographic, with Zionism.
The authorities have sustained a virulent hostility towards Baha'is throughout the existence of the Islamic Republic, referring to Baha'is as a deviant or misguided sect. The U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Question of Religious Intolerance, Abdelfattah Amor, who visited Iran in December 1995, was told by government officials that Baha'is are "a political sect historically linked to the Shah's regime and, hence, counter-revolutionary and characterized by its espionage activities for the benefit of foreign entities, particularly Israel."12 The special rapporteur noted what he referred to as "instinctive rejection" towards the Baha'i community on the part of Iranian officials with whom he met.
This 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 case of one Baha'i, Zabihullah Mahrami, provides a vivid example of the way in which the community has been treated under the Islamic Republic. Mahrami, a mid-ranking civil servant in the agriculture department of the Yazd provincial governorate, publicly renounced the Baha'i faith soon after the revolution in 1981. His adoption of Islam was reported in the newspaper. Thousands of Baha'is made similar pronouncements, particularly in the early years of the revolution, motivated, like Mahrami, by a desire to stay out of trouble and to keep their jobs.13 Thedismissal of Baha'is from public sector positions, the suspension of pension rights, and in some cases even the insistence that former public employees pay back their salaries to the state have been very commonly employed as punitive measures against Baha'is.
After a few years, as the revolutionary zeal of the first few years of the new republic began to lessen and the acute persecution of the Baha'is, which had included the execution of more than 200 adherents to the faith in the first six years of the revolution,14 became less vehement, Mahrami began attending Baha'i meetings and participating in Baha'i festivals again. In August 1995 he was brought before a Revolutionary Court15 in Yazd, where he was required to answer charges of apostasy, having renounced his purported declaration of conversion to Islam. At his first appearance before the court, Mahrami admitted that he had attended Baha'i meetings and festivals. He explained that he made his conversion to Islam "because prominent Baha'is were arrested and killed at the beginning of the revolution, my intention was to keep my family and myself safe; however, when it was determined that the Baha'is were no longer being bothered, I became a Baha'i again."16
The court, instead of moving immediately to a criminal trial, decided that it would seek to guide Mahrami back to Islam.17 When this did not work, he was charged with apostasy and insulting Islam, and on January 2, 1996, the court found him guilty as charged. The judge stated that his conduct was "a clear insult to the beliefs of one billion Muslims," and sentenced him to death. In addition, as he had no Muslim heirs and his Baha'i family was ineligible to inherit, all of his property was confiscated by the state.
Apostasy is not a crime under the penal code of the Islamic Republic. The Revolutionary Court cited a work of Ayatollah Khomeini's legal exegesis as the basis for the charge, rather than any existing legal statute of the country.18
The verdict of the Revolutionary Court was passed to the Supreme Court for approval. The Supreme Court, ruling at a time when the country was under intense scrutiny at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights following visits to the country by two special rapporteurs of the commission and the special representative on Iran, referred the case back to a civil court. The Supreme Court ruled that the Revolutionary Court was not the appropriate tribunal to address a case of this nature.
But the authorities did not comply with the Supreme Court ruling. Instead, they introduced new charges of espionage and brought Mahrami for trial before a revolutionary court again and, in February 1997, the head of the Revolutionary Court announced that Mahrami had been sentenced to death on charges of espionage for Israel.
The head of the judiciary, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, responding to U.S. State Department criticism of the death sentences, asserted, "No one in Iran will be prosecuted or punished for having a specific ideology or view." Yet it is hardly credible that a new charge-of espionage for Israel-should emerge at an appeal hearing, when previous hearings in the trial had focussed on Mahrami's conversion from Islam and his religious beliefs.
Musa Talibi, who was also sentenced to death in February 1997 on charges of engaging in espionage for Israel, was originally arrested in June 1994 on charges of engaging in Baha'i practices and sentenced to eighteen months of imprisonment. The public prosecutor objected to the lightness of the original sentence, not because of any alleged charge of espionage, but rather because the judge had failed to take into account that Talibi was a convert from Islam and therefore an apostate.
In another recent case, two Baha'is, Kayvan Khalajabadi and Bahman Mithaqi, who were originally detained without charge in April 1989, were brought to trial in November 1993 on charges of "engaging in Baha'i activities" and sentenced to death on November 23, 1993, by the Revolutionary Court of Karaj.19 The verdict was confirmed by the Supreme Court in February 1996.20
At least eight Baha'is were detained for their religious beliefs in 1996 and remain in prison. A number of short term detentions also took place.21
The right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion set forth in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights includes not only the freedom of belief, repeatedly referred to by Iranian government officials, but also the right, "individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching." The government's claim that it respects the religious freedom of Baha'is is without credibility as long as the Baha'i organization remains illegal in Iran and as long as "engaging in Baha'i activities" remains a crime subject to criminal prosecution.
There is widespread discrimination against Baha'is in education, professional life, and virtually every public sphere. For example the deputy minister of education told the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Question of Religious Intolerance that Baha'is were free to enter institutions of higher education as long as they did not "flaunt their beliefs."22 In other words, Baha'is who practice their faith are not given equal access to higher education. A secret memorandum on "the Bahai question" from the Iranian Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council, dated February 25, 1991, stated with reference to attendance at universities, "They should be expelled from the universities, either at the time of the admission procedure or during their studies, as soon as it becomes apparent that they are Baha'is."23
Similarly, with regard to employment in the public sector, a directive from the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs states:
The penalty incurred by those who belong to any of the misguided sects recognized by all Muslims as heretical deviations from Islam, or to organizations whose doctrine and constitution are based on rejection of the divinely-revealed religions, shall be permanent dismissal from public office ... and also from organizations that can be classed as governmental associations or offices...."24
This type of institutionalized discrimination against Baha'is is pervasive throughout the government. Baha'is working in the private sector have been adversely affected by the withdrawal or denial of necessary licenses to carry out certain kinds of business, obstructions in obtaining telephone connections, and the confiscation of property. For example, in a case settled on appeal in November 1994, the court ruled that property belonging to a Baha'i family named Irani-Nejad should pass to the Islamic Revolutionary Martyr's Foundation, a financial holding company controlled by Shi'a clerics, on the basis that "documents in the case file indicate that they belong to the misguided sect of Baha'ism."25 Prohibitions on the inheritance of property by non-protected unbelievers has led to cases of family property passing into the hands of the state.26 In his February 1997 report, the U.N. special representative on Iran reported, "In Yazd alone there were reportedly more than 150 cases relating to the confiscation of [Baha'i] property during 1996. The majority of Baha'is in Yazd are now prohibited from conducting any business transactions."27
In a case illustrating the open discrimination against Baha'i professionals, Mohammad Hazini, a lawyer, appealed against being barred from the practice of law. The review panel of the reorganization board of the Bar Association of Iran ruled on May 21, 1995 that, in accordance with Section 4 parts A and B of Article 5 of the Law on the Reorganization of the Lawyers Association, because of his membership in "the misguided Baha'i sect," Mr Hazini should be permanently barred from the practice of law.
Baha'is may also be denied equal protection by the courts in civil suits. For example, in May 1995 a court in Shahr-e Rey, a suburb of Tehran, refused to order the payment of compensation to the family of the victim of a fatal motorcycle accident because the deceased and the next-of-kin were Baha'is. The court found the defendant guilty of manslaughter but ordered that the fine be paid to a government fund in lieu of compensation.28
Iranian officials, in their meetings with Abdelfattah Amor, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Question of Religious Intolerance, claimed that hostile acts against Baha'is could be attributed to "small extremist groups that had already existed before the Revolution and whose aim was to eliminate the Baha'is."29 However, documents like the 1991 memorandum from the Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council clearly delineate an official policy of persecution. The discriminatory verdicts of hundreds of courts in cases large and small affecting the situation of Baha'is demonstrate the systematic and intentional nature of the human rights violations suffered by Baha'is in Iran.30 The egregious cases of Baha'is sentenced to death underline the severity of the persecution. In its treatment of the Baha'i minority, the government is far from meeting its obligations to respect, among other things, freedom of religion and equality before the law.
The majority of Iran's approximately 200,000 Christians belong to churches identified with distinct ethnic groups, including the Armenian, Assyrian, and Chaldean Orthodox churches. These churches, which account for more than 90 percent of Iran's Christians, carry out their services in their own languages and have engaged in little if any proselytization in the broader society.
In contrast, most of the 10,000 to 15,000 Iranian Protestants carry out their church services in Farsi, the official language, and seek to disseminate the Bible and other Christian texts in Farsi. Having their origins in Western missionary activity during the nineteenth century, these churches are built on a tradition of evangelism and conversion from other Christian denominations and other religions, including Islam. The Western origins of Iran's Protestant churches and the 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 toward Iran's Protestants. Their treatment since the creation of the Islamic Republic has been markedly worse than that of the majority Christian denominations. Not only are Protestants subject to the institutionalized discrimination common to all non-Muslims in the Islamic Republic; they are also subject to persecution because of their religious activities.
In the early months of the post-revolutionary period there was extensive persecution of Protestant clergy. The largest Protestant denomination, the Episcopalians, were forced to cease their activities after the confiscationof church properties, the arrest of several pastors, and physical attacks on church leaders and their families.31 Small evangelical Protestant churches continued to function.
The persecution of Iran's evangelical Christians intensified during the 1990's. In December 1990, Reverend Hossein Soodmand, a pastor in the Evangelical Christian Church who had converted to Christianity from Islam, was sentenced to death by a revolutionary court in Mashad and executed. He was charged with apostasy and insulting Islam through his own conversion and by his efforts to convert other Muslims.
In December 1993, Reverend Mehdi Dibaj was sentenced to death by a Revolutionary Court in Sari. He had been detained in 1983 in Babol, where he was a minister of the Church of the Assemblies of God, and held for ten years without trial on charges of apostasy and insulting Islam. Rev. Dibaj had converted from Islam to Christianity in 1948.
Soon after Rev. Dibaj's sentencing, Bishop Haik Hovsepian Mehr, President of the Council of Evangelical Ministers of Iran and Secretary-General of the Church of the Assemblies of God, issued a public statement listing human rights violations suffered by members of the evangelical Christian community. These included the closure of churches, the beating and intimidation of converts from Islam, and the treatment of Rev. Dibaj.
Bishop Hovsepian Mehr's statement broke a silence on the persecution of Iran's Christian minority observed by many Christian leaders in Iran, partly because of official pressure but also out of an apparent belief that by not publicizing the abuses to which they and their communities were being subjected they might prevent government reprisals. In response to Bishop Hovsepian Mehr's statement, and his call to the U.N. special representative to investigate and report on the "denial of religious freedom"32 suffered by Iran's Protestant minority, the government pressured the leaders of all Christian denominations to sign statements attesting to their good treatment in the Islamic Republic. These statements were received by several international organizations, including Human Rights Watch. The Assemblies of God Church and other evangelical churches refused to sign such declarations. Their defiance was dealt with severely.
On January 16, 1994, Rev. Dibaj was released from prison after more than ten years of confinement, apparently as a result of the international pressure generated by the campaign initiated by Bishop Hovsepian Mehr. Just three days later, on January 19, 1994, Bishop Hovsepian Mehr was abducted in Tehran. According to official reports, police discovered his body in the street in Shahr-e Rey, a Tehran suburb; unable to identify it, they buried it immediately in a Muslim cemetery. After the family protested, the body was disinterred and reburied in a Christian cemetery.
On June 20, 1994, Rev. Dibaj disappeared after leaving a Christian conference in Karaj. Nothing was heard about his whereabouts until July 5, 1994, when Tehran police reported finding his body in a forest west of Tehran. The authorities denied the family's request that an independent autopsy be carried out on the body. He was buried on July 13, 1994.
After Bishop Hovsepian Mehr's killing, Reverend Tateos Mikaelian, Senior Pastor of St. John Armenian Evangelical Church, took over the position of president of the Council of Evangelical Ministers. On June 29, 1994,he too disappeared. On July 2, 1994, his son received a telephone call informing him that his father's body was in the morgue. He had been shot in the head three times.
After an initial silence from the authorities, punctuated by suggestions that the Protestant leaders had political agendas in addition to their religious activities, the government blamed the killings on the armed opposition group, the People's Mojahedine Organization of Iran (PMOI). A young woman, Farahnaz Anami, was arrested and accused of involvement in the killings. The government claimed that the PMOI had planned the killings in order to create strife between Christians and Muslims and to discredit the Iranian government at a time when its treatment of religious minorities was an issue of international concern.
From the outset, the manner in which Anami's prosecution was handled created doubts about the validity of the government's claims that the killings were the work of its opponents. Even if the government's claims were accepted at face value, they only account in part for the killings. In televised confessions, Farahnaz Anami admitted to her complicity in the murder of Rev. Tateos Mikaelian. She stated that she was the killer, that she lured the priest to his death by professing an interest in Christianity and then, with the help of an unidentified accomplice, shot him and placed his body in a freezer. The killers in the other cases have not been identified. According to Anami, the killer of Mehdi Dibaj is known to her, allegedly another PMOI member, but he has left the country.33
Anami was brought to trial together with two other women accused of planting bombs in Muslim shrines in Qom and Tehran. In a highly unusual development, they were brought to trial in March 1995 before a Revolutionary Court that was open to the public, including observers from Western embassies.34 The accused were assigned defense counsel and gave every appearance of confessing to their crimes without having been subjected to any kind of coercion. The trial was televised, and the judge opened the proceedings by describing the case as an example of how Iran was victimized by international terrorism. He said that the message of the trial was that Christian countries should not trust the PMOI because the organization kills Christians, and he urged the international community not to provide a haven for what he referred to as "anti-human hypocrites." The sentences of between ten and twenty years handed down by the court in September 1995 were remarkably lenient by the standards of the Islamic Republic. The court agreed to leniency because, it stated, the women had been misled by the opposition group.
Since their conviction, the women have been available for interviews by to human rights observers visiting the country. Human Rights Watch interviewed the women in Evin Prison in January 1996, at the government's suggestion. The interview took place in an office inside the prison. The Human Rights Watch researcher was alone with the three women, but a connecting door was left open and security personnel were present at a distance from which the conversation could be overheard. Farahnaz Anami repeated her stories of involvement in the killings, as she had told them in court. In reply to questions, Farahnaz Anami stated that she had never received any training in the use of firearms and that she had never even held a gun before shooting Rev. Mikaelian three times in the back of the head. The three women all claimed to have spent more than five years in prison for their support of the PMOI during the mid-eighties. They claimed that throughout that time they were well treated and never witnessed any ill-treatment or torture in the prisons. All of them confirmed that they had been well treated since their current arrest.
Even if one accepts the government assertion that Ms. Anami is Rev. Mikaelian's assassin, the government still has the obligation to find the killers of Rev. Dibaj and Bishop Hovsepian Mehr. As for the women's confessions, which were the only "evidence" presented, there is reason to question why the women received lenient sentences and why procedures in their trial differed so markedly from those followed in other trials before revolutionary courts, which routinely take place in secret with no respect for due process rights. The government provided no evidenceof PMOI involvement in the killings other than the uncorroborated confessions of the women. Moreover, the women's reports of their experience as political prisoners in the mid-eighties differs markedly from those of thousands of their fellow prisoners who were subjected to torture and summary execution.
The three killings shocked the Protestant community. In his December 1995 visit, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Question of Religious Intolerance Amor noted "the traumatism caused to the Christian and Protestant communities by the murder of three Protestant pastors."35 In his report, however, the special rapporteur makes no assessment of the degree of official culpability for the three murders. "Regardless of the motives for those criminal acts," Amor simply remarked in his conclusions, "the special rapporteur strongly condemns them and sincerely hopes that such crimes will not recur."36
The previous treatment of Rev. Dibaj-who had been sentenced to death as an apostate and held for years in prison because of his religious beliefs-as well as the brutal treatment of other evangelical Christians, especially converts from Islam,37 demonstrates the government's hostility towards these Christian leaders, and raises questions about the government's involvement in the murders.
The killings resulted in an interruption in the flow of information about the persecution of the Protestant Church. Christian sources report that Protestant leaders in Iran have been intimidated from reporting on the situation of evangelical Christians in Iran, and have also discontinued their evangelizing activities among Muslims. However, accounts of persecution continue to emerge sporadically. For example, it has been reported that Rev. Harmik Torosian, a pastor in the Assembly of God Church in Shiraz, was detained in Shiraz in November 1995. He remains in detention and Christian sources reported that he is suffering from torture and ill-treatment.
At the end of September 1996, another Christian pastor, Mohammed Ravanbakhsh (officially named Mohammed Bagher Youssefi), was found dead in suspicious circumstances. Pastor Ravanbakhsh was serving as minister in an underground Assembly of God church in Sari, and was a convert from Islam. He had been a close associate of Rev. Mehdi Dibaj. Pastor Ravanbakhsh's body was reported to have been found hanging in a tree in a forest near Ghaem-Shahr in northern Iran. One of his legs had reportedly been broken before he died, making suicide an unlikely cause of death. Iranian Christians International (ICI), who reported his death, stated that he had been taken into detention prior to being killed.38 ICI characterizes Pastor Ravanbakhsh's death as part of a new wave of persecution of Evangelical Christians in Iran, dating from mid-1996:
Pastors have again been arrested, interrogated, and pressured to sign statements that they would not evangelize Muslims inside or outside their churches, admit Muslims to their churches, or baptize Muslim converts. They are forbidden to contact the outside world...39
In July 1996, Shahram Sepehri-Fard, the son of a prominent Protestant pastor who had converted from Islam, Rev. Sadegh Sepehri-Fard, was detained in Tehran on apparently fabricated charges of espionage and adultery. He was acquitted of these charges in October 1996 and fled Iran on his release from prison. Sepehri-Fard has declared that the real reason for his detention was his family's conversion from Islam to Christianity.
Rev. Khosrow Khodadi, a Muslim convert who served as pastor of a Pentecostal Assyrian Church in Hamadan until its closure in 1994, has been refused a passport to enable him to leave Iran. He previously traveled to Turkey but was deported for traveling on a forged passport. ICI reported that he has been detained several times and that he has been forced to relocate from Hamadan to Tehran where he is said to be kept under close surveillance. ICI also reported several other cases of Muslim converts to Christianity, some of whom have not wanted their names publicized, who have been detained and subjected to other pressures to force them to recant their Christian faith. Only two Protestant churches that preach in Persian have been allowed to remain open: the Assembly of God churches in Tehran and Rasht. Other Protestant churches conduct their services in Assyrian or Armenian and have no activities directed toward the majority Muslim population.
With regard to practicing their religion and maintaining churches and other religious institutions, the Assyro-Chaldean and Armenian Orthodox Christian minorities have suffered much less than the Protestants from state interference or prohibition of their activities. These communities maintain schools and engage in a broad range of social and cultural activities that are tolerated by the authorities. The religious authorities administer personal status courts dealing with such matters as marriage, divorce, and inheritance. However, in cases that extend beyond their own communities to involve Muslims, these Christians are subject to the same discriminatory treatment as other non-Muslim citizens of the Islamic Republic. The special rapporteur observed:
In the field of justice, especially at the lower levels of public courts, minority plaintiffs are usually discriminated against by judges, who treat them as members of a minority and not as Iranian citizens, applying their brand of Islam and taking decisions that are very often in favor of Muslims.40
Another factor to take into consideration when seeking to assess the human rights situation of the Armenian and Assyro-Chaldean Christian minorities, as well as the Jews and the Zoroastrians, is that these communities have tended not to call international attention to the problems or persecution that they may face. According to the special rapporteur, their representatives "emphasized the importance and usefulness of the dialogue between minorities and authorities as a way of reaching short-term, medium-term and long-term agreements, compromises and solutions."41 There is little information about the type of persecution endured by Orthodox Christians. This may indicate a lower level of persecution, but the difference in approach between the communities on the question of whether or not to publicize their difficulties internationally should not be discounted as a factor in the way that their human rights situation is perceived.42
Approximately 25,000 Jews live in Iran. More than twice that number have left the country since the creation of the Islamic Republic, driven to emigrate by several factors, including fear of persecution in a militant religious state in which official opposition to Israeli policies is often expressed in anti-Semitic language. The governmentmaintains that it protects the religious freedom of Iran's Jews. There are synagogues and recognized religious leaders. Like other non-Muslim minorities, the Jewish community elects its own representative to the parliament (majles). Although religious minorities are free to vote in presidential elections, they are not permitted to run for the presidency.
Information on the treatment of Jews in Iran is difficult to gather, owing in part to the apparent preference of community leaders not to publicize instances of mistreatment, if and when they occur. The organized community tends to publicly voice support for government policies, for example in denouncing Israel.
Generally speaking, Iranian Jews are not individually persecuted because of their religion. However, in cases where a Jew is prosecuted, such as the case of Hedayat Zendehdel, a convert to Islam brought to trial in 1996 on a vast array of charges including conspiracy, arms trafficking and espionage, the Jewish identity or origins of the defendant have been highlighted in a defamatory manner. For example, a commentary in the official daily newspaper Resalat concluded, let "Zendehdel be a symbol of the continued disgrace of the homeless Jews."43 He was executed.
Sunni Muslims44 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. Speaking at a conference in London in February 1997, Dr. Hossein Khalighi, an Iranian Sunni Kurd living in exile, stated:
We Muslim Sunni of Iran bear with daily insults ushered at us by the Shi'a clergy. They destroy our mosques to build and expand theirs, they humiliate our most sacred men and values in the officially controlled media, they encourage religious wars between Sunnis and Shi'as, they arrest, torture and kill Sunni Muftis and personalities, force Sunnis to convert to Shi'ism, forbid Sunni teaching in the schools in Sunni dominated areas, refer to Sunni ulama as apostates, and produce many volumes on Shi'ism while forbidding the printing of Sunni books.45
As Sunni Muslims, the majority of Iran's Kurds suffer religious discrimination in the Shi'a state. Kurds played an active role in the overthrow of the Shah, and among their demands for greater autonomy from the central authorities in Iran was the demand for more autonomy in the religious sphere. However, Ayatollah Khomeini declined to appoint as his representative in the Kurdish region the popular Sunni cleric, Ahmad Moftizadeh, choosing instead a Shi'a cleric with no local following.46 Sunni Kurds have seen their aspirations for greater autonomy and respect for their right to religious freedom denied. Friday prayer leaders, even in the Sunni mosques, are appointed by the central authorities. Shi'a proselytizing is encouraged. For example, in March 1995 the Friday prayer leaderin a mosque in Sanandaj announced that he would issue the call to prayer and carry out other religious rites in accordance with Shi'a traditions, regardless of the fact that he was serving a Sunni congregation.47
The death of a prominent Sunni cleric, Mollah Mohammed Rabi'i, in Kermanshah, the major city in the Kurdish region, on December 2, 1996, led to three days of violent clashes between Sunnis and the security forces. The demonstrators claimed that Mollah Rabi'i had been killed because of his activities as the prayer leader in the Al-Shafe'i mosque, the major mosque in this predominantly Sunni city. According to independent press reports, rioting arising from the death spread to other towns in the region.48
The Iranian government replied to the U.N. special representative's inquiry about the cause of death of Mollah Rabi'i:
In accordance with the autopsy report, Mr. Molla Mohammad Rabi'ei [sic] died as a result of a heart attack. The autopsy was carried out by the Kermanshah forensic department and in the presence of representatives of the judiciary, family members, some Sunni physicians and Sunni clergy.49
Regardless of Mollah Rabi'i's cause of death, the tensions between the Sunni Kurdish community and the authorities were all too apparent in the reaction to the incident.50 Because independent observers have difficulty gaining access to this part of the country, there is no clear information about casualties on both sides from the clashes, nor about the tactics employed by the security forces to quell the disturbances. Kurdish sources have reported that Revolutionary Guards fired on unarmed civilians in Kermanshah and the town of Jwanrow. Similarly, it is not known how many people remain in detention as a result of these clashes, nor what kind of treatment those in detention are receiving.
While Shi'a religious institutions are encouraged, Sunni institutions are blocked. For example, in 1993 a newly constructed Sunni mosque in Sanandaj was destroyed by a mob of Shi'a zealots. According to Sunni activists, the authorities took no action to restrain or to punish them. In 1994 the Sunni community of Sanandaj raised more than 10 million toumans in order to enlarge the Dar al-Ehsan mosque. Despite the fact that all the necessary building permits were obtained from local authorities, the Ministry of Islamic Guidance stepped in to block the new extension and confiscated the funds raised to carry out the project. Despite the fact that more than one million Sunnis live in Tehran, many of them Kurds, no Sunni mosque exists to serve their religious needs.
The Baluchis are another ethnic group that is predominantly Sunni Muslim. Many of the religious leaders from the Sunni Baluchi community go to Saudi Arabia for their religious training. This creates tension with the government because in Saudi Arabia religious students are exposed to instruction that is hostile to Shi'ism, especially from Wahhabi instructors who regard Shi'ism as heresy. Political tensions between the Iranian and Saudi Arabian governments only exacerbate this tension. Periodically Sunni religious leaders are detained and accused of being Wahhabi spies.
There are few Sunni seminaries in Iran. In February 1996 security forces raided the Salehabad seminary in Mashad, detaining members of the faculty and obliging seminary students to leave their studies to do their military service. In contrast, Shi'a seminary students are exempt from military service. This type of disruption of seminary education for Sunni clerics in Iran encourages them to seek their education in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan.
There are a number of incidents in which violence appear to have been politically motivated and in which the Iranian government appears complicit in the killing of Baluchi religious and political leaders. Haji Mohammed Ziaie, a prominent Sunni figure who had been critical of the government's policies toward the Sunni minority, particularly in Baluchestan, was killed under suspicious circumstances in July 1994. In 1992 Haji Ziaie visited Mecca in Saudi Arabia for a pilgrimage. On his return he was detained and interrogated on charges of having made contact with enemies of the Islamic Republic. He was held for a month and released. He remained active on Sunni issues and was a leading figure in protests following the destruction of the Sunni mosque in Mashad. He also protested against mass executions carried out in Baluchestan over many years in the name of combating drug trafficking.
In June 1994, Haji Ziaie was summoned to Tehran and forced to sign a statement that he would stop criticizing the government. From then on he was subjected to close surveillance and summoned on numerous occasions for interrogation. On July 15, 1994, he was summoned to Laar and was never seen alive again, according to Sunni activists interviewed in Europe in January 1997. Sunni activists who had been in direct contact with his family said that five days after he had been summoned, police informed his family that his body had been found in a valley and that he had been the victim of a car accident. The activists said that when the family received the body they noted that it had been decapitated, that an arm and a leg had been amputated and that his abdomen had been split open. However, the car he had allegedly been traveling in did not appear seriously damaged, making the family believe that Haji Ziaie had been murdered and that the government, which had summoned him to an appointment, was his killer. As no independent autopsy or inquiry into his death was carried out, the circumstances of his killing remain unclear. With his death a leading advocate of the rights of Sunni Baluchis was silenced.
As many as sixty Sunni religious leaders, mainly from the Baluchi community, are reported to be in prison for their support of demands for parity for Sunni Islam in Iran and for an end to repression in Baluchestan.51 These Sunni religious leaders had founded the Islamic Society Association in Zahedan, the major city in Sistan va-Baluchestan province, to promote the rights and interests of Sunni Muslims. One of the prisoners, Molavi Abdulrahman Alahverdi, a religious leader in the Baluchi town of Saravan, was detained in late February, apparently for his activities in support of the rights of Sunni Baluchis.
Molavi Ahmad Sayyad was a leader of the Baluchi Sunni community. On his return from religious studies in Saudi Arabia in 1990, he was imprisoned for five years on suspicion of having engaged in anti-government activities. At the end of January 1996 Sayyad was taken into detention by the authorities on returning from a visit to the United Arab Emirates. According to a report in the London Arabic daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat, his body was discovered outside the city of Bandar Abbas on February 2, 1996, bearing signs of torture.52 Again no official inquiry into the cause of death was carried out, but since Molavi Sayyad was last seen alive in the custody of the authorities, suspicion falls heavily on the government as his killer. The government's hand is also suspected in the unexplained killing of another Sunni Baluchi cleric, Abdol-Aziz Kazemi Vajd, whose body was found in suspicious circumstances outside the city of Zahedan on November 5, 1996.
Some leading figures in the Sunni Baluchi opposition movement have fled the country to avoid imprisonment and carry out their opposition activities from abroad. These opposition figures abroad have also been the target of fatal attacks in which the Iranian government is suspected of involvement. For example, on March 4, 1996, Molavi Abdul Malek, the son of the most prominent Sunni cleric in Iran, Molavi Abdul Aziz,53 was gunned down outside his house in Karachi, Pakistan. According to Sunni activists, he had been under constant surveillance by Iranian agents active in Karachi because of his activities on behalf of the Baluchi community.54
The recent arrests and killings of Baluchi religious leaders appears to be part of a concerted campaign to suppress Baluchi claims for parity for Sunni Islam and respect for their cultural and linguistic traditions. The heavy-handed war on drugs carried out in Baluchi areas for many years has resulted in many human rights violations and provided cover for acts of political repression by the government.11 Suspicion of Baha'ism is not unique to Iran. Throughout the Middle East small communities of Baha'is have been subjected to official persecution and to vilification by Islamic religious authorities. 12 Report submitted by Abdelfattah Amor, Special Rapporteur to the Fifty Second Commission on Human Rights, Feb. 9, 1996, UN Doc. E/CN.4/1996/95/Add.2 (hereafter, Amor 1996), para. 56. 13 According to a written appeal submitted to the Supreme Court in March 1996, Mahrami never officially converted to Islam. He simply signed a prepared form that many Baha'is were pressured to sign. His "conversion" was reported in the newspaper without his knowledge. The file number is D/228/74. A copy is on file at Human Rights Watch. 14 Amnesty International, Iran Briefing (AI Index: MDE 13/08/87), London, 1987, p. 2. 15 Revolutionary Courts grew out of the revolutionary structures established in the immediate aftermath of the overthrow of the Shah's government. These courts have been extensively used in cases of a political nature and have become notorious for their disregard of international fair trial standards. Their jurisdiction was codified in law in 1983 to include:
Any offense against internal or external security, attempt on the life of political personalities, any offense relating to narcotic drugs and smuggling, murder, massacre, imprisonment, and torture in an attempt to fortify the Pahlavi regime, suppressing the struggles of the Iranian people by giving orders or acting as agent, plundering the public treasury, profiteering and forestalling the market of public commodities.
(A Glimpse of the Judicial System of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Prepared by the Judicial Deputy of the Chief Justice and printed by the Official Gazette Corporation of Iran, undated.)16 Taken from an unofficial translation of the verdict of the Revolutionary Court of Yazd, in the case of Zabihullah Mahrami, case # 74/2288/D, January 2, 1996, on file at Human Rights Watch. 17 It arranged for a series of meetings to be held in which Mahrami's religious views could be examined. The first of these took place on October 3, 1995, at which Mahrami declared his continuing belief that Baha'u'llah was a prophet. At a second meeting on October 14, 1995, he refused to recant his belief in the Baha'i faith. At a third meeting, on December 19, 1995, he again refused to recant. 18 Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Tahrir al-Vasileh (A Clarification of Questions), Volume 1, p. 118, for a definition of the crime of apostasy. It is worth noting that the incorporation of Revolutionary Courts into a unified national court system brought with it the recognition of many religious judges as qualified judges even though they did not meet formal judicial qualification requirements. Such judges may base their judgments on works of religious exegesis as well as or instead of basing them on the codified law. See The Justice System of the Islamic Republic of Iran (New York: Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, May 1993), p. 31. 19 In an interview printed in Salam newspaper, on April 10,1993, Dr. Hossein Mehrpour, a member of the Iranian delegation to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, stated, "In the constitution the inquisition of people about their beliefs is forbidden, and no one can be punished because of his beliefs... the death sentences applied to Khalajabadi and Mithaqi were not because they were Baha'is but because they were spies." 20 The sentence had not been carried out as of the publication of this report. 21 As reported by U.N. Special Representative on Iran, Maurice Copithorne, in his report to the fifty-third session of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, the eight Baha'is were Mansur Haddadan and Kamyar Ruhi, arrested in Mashhad, February 29, 1996; Arman Damashqi and Kurush Dhabihi, arrested in Gohardasht in early 1996; Babu'llah Farji, arrested in Qa'im Shahr, October 7, 1996; Nasir Iqaniyan, arrested in Simnan on October 22, 199; Bihnam Rida'i, also arrested in Simnan on October 31, 1996; and Nasir Haqtalab, arrested in Mashhad on October 31, 1996. Report on the Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, prepared by the Special Representative of the Commission on Human Rights, Maurice Copithorne, U.N. doc. E/CN.4/1977/63, February 11, 1997 (hereafter Copithorne 1997), para. 53. 22 Amor 1996, para. 63. 23 Ibid. The complete text of this document was published in The Baha'i Question, Iran's Secret Blueprint for the Destruction of a Religious Community (New York: Baha'i International Community, 1993). 24 Ibid., para. 64. 25 Case of Faramarz Irani-nejad, docket no. 33719/m/62. 26 The U.N. special representative describes a case from September 1995 in Yazd in which an application for succession rights to a deceased's property was refused on the grounds that the deceased as well as the husband and children were Baha'is. Report on the Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, prepared by the Special Representative of the Commission on Human Rights, Mr. Maurice Copithorne, U.N. doc. E/CN.4/1996/59, March 21, 1996 (hereafter Copithorne 1996), para. 72. 27 Copithorne 1997, para.55. 28 Ibid. 29 Amor 1996, para. 70. 30 For example, Special Rapporteur Amor reported, "The judiciary would never respond positively to complaints lodged by Baha'is. The courts, presupposing the Baha'is to be involved in espionage activities, would infer that the Baha'is had no recognized rights." Amor 1996, para. 67. The Baha'i International Community U.S.A. chapter in Washington, D.C. maintains records on hundreds of cases illustrating discrimination against Baha'is, involving such measures as property seizure, suspension of official pensions, orders to repay pensions, and exclusion from universities and professions. Several such cases have been detailed in reports by U.N. representatives since the inception of the mandate in 1984. 31 Bishop H.B. Dehqani-Tafti, The Hard Awakening (New York: The Seabury Press, 1981). Bishop Dehqani-Tafti was the head of the Episcopal Church in Iran. His son Bahman was fatally shot in the street in May 1980. The perpetrators were never identified. He and his wife had escaped an attempt on their lives in October 1979. 32 Bishop Hovsepian Mehr made this statement in a news release embargoed for December 13, 1995. This statement was circulated in English by Middle East Concern, P.O. Box 295, Macomb, Illinois, 61455. 33 Human Rights Watch interview with Farahnaz Anami, Evin Prison, Tehran, January 1996. 34 Human Rights Watch requested permission to send an observer to this trial but did not receive a reply. 35 Amor 1996, para. 79. 36 Ibid., para.117. 37 Days before his death, Bishop Hovsepian Mehr wrote to a fellow priest in the west, in Kermanshah: "Converts have been beaten and hanged upside down for many hours and beaten with thick wires for hours, so much so that they had broken the arm of a young believer in Christ." 38 Press release, "Western Missionary Released from Prison in Iran," March 21, 1997. Iranian Christians International, Colorado Springs, CO. 39 Ibid. 40 Amor 1996, para. 45. 41 Amor 1996, para. 46. 42 For example, two Iranian Assyrian Christians interviewed in Germany in January 1997 complained of restrictions on the community's ability to print its own translation of the bible in Assyrian, and being forced to rely on an official government translation. They also complained of interference in the functioning of private Assyrian schools. 43 Resalat, January 8, 1997, quoted in Anti-Defamation League, World Jewish Congress, Anti-Semitism Worldwide 1996/7 (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University, 1997), p. 208. 44 Sunni Muslims constitute the vast majority of the world's Muslim population. The schism between Shi'a and Sunnis dates to a dispute over the succession of leadership in the early years of Islam, in AD 656. The Shi'a took their name, meaning partisans, from their support for Ali, the Prophet's first cousin, who was defeated by Muawiya, a general who assumed leadership of the Caliphate although he was not a blood relative of the prophet. 45 "Iranians told about atrocities against religious minorities," Iran Press Service, London, Feb. 11, 1997. 46 Shahrzad Mojab and Amir Hassanpour, The Politics of Nationality and Ethnic Diversity in Rahnema & Behdad, Iran After the Revolution, Crisis of an Islamic State (London: I.B. Tauris, 1996, hereafter Mojab & Hassanpour), p. 237. 47 Human Rights Watch interview with Sunni Kurdish activist, Berlin, Germany, February 1997. 48 For example, a Reuters report on December 5, 1996, " Riots hit western Iran city, police colonel killed," described several people killed and many arrested in Kermanshah as well as riots in the town of Paveh, sixty-five miles to the northwest. 49 Copithorne 1997, Annex 1, para. 10. 50 Sunni activists interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Europe in January 1997 claimed that Mollah Rabi'i had been killed by the authorities because he had preached sermons denouncing the popular religious television serial screened in the month of Ramadhan which was allegedly derogatory toward Sunni Muslims. 51 Baluchi activists, interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Europe in January 1997, provided the names of some of these prisoners, including Moulavi Abdullah Qohestani, Moulavi Abdolghani, Sheikh Jamy, Ahmed Hossiny, Abdolraqi Shirani, Javanshir Davoody, Abdol Baqy Qataly, and Abdol Raouf Sokhry. 52 Al-Sharq al-Awsat, February 2, 1996. 53 Molavi Abdel Aziz was elected as a member of the constituent assembly charged with approving the draft constitution of the Islamic Republic in 1979. When it was proposed that Shi'a Islam should be the state religion, he resigned from the assembly. 54 Human Rights Watch interview with Sunni activists, Europe, January 1997.