Religious Cleansing in Iran
Iran treats non-Muslims as harshly as political dissidents. Why doesn't the West notice?


The tomb of Daniel, from the Old Testament, is exploited by the regime to promote its relentless anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli propaganda. One mural features an imaginary scene of Iranian forces joining Palestinian fighters in seizing Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. Nearby slogans denounce Jews, Zionism, and Israel. Jews have stopped visiting the site altogether.

Though the constitution permits Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians to “act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education,” Iran’s Education Ministry administers minority schools and imposes a state-approved religious textbook. Many minority secondary schools have been nationalized. The surviving private schools typically have Muslim directors. All university applicants must pass an examination in Islamic theology. Bahais have been essentially barred from higher education.

Zoroastrian schools must display towering portraits of Iran’s supreme leaders. Quranic quotations and revolutionary slogans are painted on their interior walls with the forced participation of the schoolchildren, while mullahs and revolutionary guards chant Shia praises.

The same displays are forced on churches, especially those not within Armenian or Assyrian neighborhoods. Churchgoers are taunted as infidels by Pasdaran and by Basij militiamen.

Religious minorities experience high unemployment and economic impoverishment, since so much of the economy, including the oil industry, is controlled by the state. Minority storeowners must display prominent signs indicating they are najasa (ritually unclean). Bahais have no property rights, and their homes and business are vulnerable to confiscation.

Non-Muslims are not excluded from the compulsory military service, however, and they report being deployed for especially hazardous assignments. During the Iran-Iraq war, they were routinely transferred to suicide brigades. Non-Muslim communities maintain small “martyrs’ walls” as memorials to their war dead.

Any non-Muslim responsible for a Muslim’s death faces capital punishment, in accordance with medieval Islamic jurisprudence. Conversely, Muslims do not face capital punishment or even long prison sentences for murdering a non-Muslim, though they are fined. Exceptions are in the murder of a Bahai or a Muslim apostate — no compensation whatsoever is required. In a court proceeding, a non-Muslim’s testimony is valued at half that of a Muslim’s. A non-Muslim who converts to Islam becomes the sole inheritor of his or her family’s assets.

President Ahmadinejad denies the Holocaust, threatens Israel, and promotes the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as genuine. He has reportedly vowed the end of Christianity’s development in Iran. Under his presidency, life has only become more difficult for religious minorities. Their social organizations have been subject to intrusive investigations and threatened with criminal charges on such grounds as rejecting “cultural conformity” and weakening “the centrality of the Islamic regime.” A new committee in Qom has been empowered to “combat activities of members of religious minorities.” The five minority parliamentarians, like 175 of their colleagues, left Tehran to avoid having to congratulate the president upon his reelection, prompting a new round of raids on synagogues, churches, and fire temples.

Iran’s non-Muslims cannot defend their own rights. In 2005, the Zoroastrian parliamentarian Kourosh Niknam tried to do so, by giving a speech protesting a slur against non-Muslims by the head of the Guardian Council. He was prosecuted for failing to show respect for Iran’s leaders but released with a stern admonishment in response to domestic and international pressure.

Iran’s political dissidents are defended by the West. Its diverse non-Muslim minorities ask why they’ve been forgotten.

– Jamsheed K. Choksy is a professor of Iranian studies and former director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program at Indiana University and serves as a Member of the National Council on the Humanities. Nina Shea directs the Hudson Institutes Center for Religious Freedom and serves on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The views expressed herein are their own.