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


‘Every aspect of a non-Muslim is unclean,” proclaimed Iran’s late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini. He explained that non-Muslims rank between “feces” and “the sweat of a camel that has consumed impure food.” Other prominent ayatollahs, including Ahmad Jannati, the current chairman of the Guardian Council, have made similar utterances.

Thus Iran’s Zoroastrians, Jews, Mandeans, Christians, and Bahais are subordinated and indeed treated as a fifth column by the revolutionary Islamic Republic. No matter that most of these religious groups were established in Iran before Islam arrived there; none are accepted by Iran’s Shiite rulers as fully Iranian. With the recent controversial presidential election, the scapegoating of non-Muslims as agents of the United States, Israel, Britain, and the deposed monarchy reached new heights. Seven Bahai leaders and two Christian converts are in prison and will soon be put on trial for their lives, while other non-Muslims are suffering intensified government repression.

Non-Muslim communities collectively have diminished to no more than 2 percent of Iran’s 71 million people. Forty years ago, under the Shah, a visitor would have seen a relatively tolerant society. Iran now appears to be in the final stages of religious cleansing. Pervasive discrimination, intimidation, and harassment have prompted non-Muslims to flee in disproportionately high numbers.

Like political dissidents, these religious minorities are a moderating force against Iranian Shiite extremism. Also, their mere presence ensures a modicum of ideological diversity and pluralism in the face of the regime’s brutal insistence on conformity. But unlike the dissidents, the religious minorities have attracted little international concern, and their plight is poorly understood.

Iran’s constitution requires that laws and regulations be based on Islamic criteria, which mandate inferior status for three non-Muslim faiths, while withholding all rights and protections from all other faiths. Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian (specifically, Assyrian and Armenian) live in a modern version of dhimmi status — the protected though subjugated condition of “people of the Book” dating back to medieval times. While these three groups are allotted seats in the legislative assembly (a total of five out of 290 seats), they are barred from seeking high public office in any of the three branches of government.

Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, and evangelical churches are not regarded as heritage communities and are afforded few rights. Christian worship must be in the Assyrian or Armenian languages, not in Farsi. Several Protestant and evangelical leaders have been murdered by government agents in recent years, and last year reports surfaced of a renewed crackdown against churches operating in people’s homes, with reportedly 50 or more arrests. Mandeans have sought in vain for official recognition based on their historic ties to John the Baptist.

Members of the Bahai faith, an independent religion that originated in 19th-century Iran, are treated far worse: as heretics to be persecuted outright. According to Iranian law, Bahai blood is considered mobah — that is, it can be spilled with impunity. Over two hundred Bahais have been executed since 1979. “An enemy of Islam” was written on some of their corpses. In 1979 the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) demolished the house of the Bab, a sacred Bahai site in the southwestern city of Shiraz, and the place where it stood has since been paved over for an Islamic center. The burial shrine of Quddus, a prominent follower of the Bab, was destroyed at Babol in 2004. Bahais can gather only underground — at private homes or in surreptitiously rented halls.

Converts from Islam to any other faith are regarded by the state as apostates who can be put to death. Iran bans non-Muslims not only from proselytizing but from most public religious expression in the presence of Muslims. The Intelligence Ministry closely monitors Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian religious communities. These groups are routinely denied permission for formal contacts with foreign co-religionists.

Among these religious groups, initiation ceremonies, weddings, and funerals must be discreet affairs. Even so, they run the risk of raids by the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance to ensure adherence to “Islamic standards.” A 2004 raid of one gathering resulted in the arrest of 80 Christians for following their own mores in women’s dress and in allowing men and women to mingle.

In Shiraz, a synagogue, a church, and a fire temple are located in close proximity to one another. Anti-Pahlavi graffiti there are refreshed regularly to remind Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians that their loyalty remains suspect. Jews often are accused of aiding Israel. In 2000, eleven prominent Iranian Jews were convicted of spying for Israel.


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