The Iranian government continues to persecute religious minorities, including groups supposedly given special recognition by the country’s constitution: Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians. According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s (USCIRF) annual report for 2017, Iran’s government “engaged in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, including prolonged detention, torture, and executions based primarily or entirely upon the religion of the accused.” Because of its failure to respect religious minorities, Iran has been considered a “country of particular concern” by the State Department for close to two decades.
Hundreds of Christians have been arrested since 2010. As of December 2016, “approximately 90 Christians were in prison, detained, or awaiting trial because of their religious beliefs and activities.” “Over the past year,” reports the USCIRF, “there were numerous incidents of Iranian authorities raiding church services, threatening church members, and arresting and imprisoning worshipers and church leaders, particularly Evangelical Christian converts.”
The most recent International Religious Freedom report by the State Department corroborates the information gleaned by the USCIRF. Muslims who convert to Christianity place themselves at severe risk of government retaliation. Armenian and Assyrian Christians, who have deep roots in Iran and the surrounding region, are also subject to persecution at the hands of the government:
The authorities required all churchgoers to register with them and prevented Muslim converts to Christianity from entering Armenian or Assyrian churches, according to UN Special Rapporteur Shaheed. According to Christian community leaders, if the authorities found Armenian or Assyrian churches were baptizing new converts or preaching in Farsi, they closed the churches.
Estimates of the total number of Christians in Iran vary. The USCIRF and State Department suggest there around 300,000, of which most are of Armenian origin. Other estimates place the number closer to half a million, or even one million.
The story of Armenian Christians goes back to the earliest days of the Church. A valuable, though certainly not exhaustive, summary of their history can be found in David Bentley Hart’s The Story of Christianity.
According to Hart, the Armenian royal family adopted the Christian faith “some 13 years before the Christians of the Roman empire were granted the right to practice their faith by the Edict of Milan.” The latter was instituted in a.d. 313. Yet Christian tradition traces the roots of Armenian Christianity even farther back in time, to the apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus, who established the Christian faith there. The acknowledged founder of Armenian Christianity, Hart notes, was St. Gregory the Illuminator, who converted King Tiridates III.
It is not only Christians who suffer from persecution in Iran. Members of the Baha’i faith face severe repression because they are viewed as heretics from Islam. “Since 1979, authorities have killed or executed more than 200 Baha’i leaders,” according to the USCIRF, “and more than 10,000 have been dismissed from government and university jobs.” The State Department reports that the government has “continued to prevent Bahais from burying their dead in accordance with their religious tradition, and continued demolition of the Bahai cemetery in Shiraz, where authorities had already destroyed over 400 of the 950 graves.”
The USCIRF recommends several ways for the U.S. to respond to Iran’s persecution of religious minorities. The U.S. should, it suggests, “continue to identify Iranian government agencies and officials responsible for severe violations of religious freedom, freeze those individuals’ assets, and bar their entry into the United States.” Furthermore, the U.S. government should “ensure that violations of freedom of religion or belief and related human rights are part of multilateral or bilateral discussions with the Iranian government whenever possible.”
The USCIRF recommends several ways for the U.S. to respond to Iran’s persecution of religious minorities.
The latter suggestion is especially important as the U.S. seeks ways to check Iranian aggression in the wake of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal. As the UCIRF report notes, “notwithstanding the JCPOA, the United States continues to keep in place and enforce sanctions for Iran’s human rights violations, its support for terrorism, and its ballistic missile program.”
It is no secret that President Trump dislikes the nuclear deal, having called it “the worst deal ever negotiated.” Despite his reservations, he recently recertified, albeit reluctantly, that Iran is complying with the provisions of the agreement. Temporarily, at least, the deal is here to stay. As part of a comprehensive strategy to check Iran’s regional ambitions, Trump could consider applying new sanctions for violating human rights — in this case due to the persecution of religious minorities. For these sanctions to be more effective, he should consult with leaders from the other nations who signed on to the nuclear deal to try to get them on board.
New sanctions could have the dual effect of improving the situation of religious minorities and forcing Iran to, at least for a time, rein in its efforts to project power in the Middle East.
— Jeff Cimmino is an editorial intern at National Review.