“The Iranian authorities have a history of cracking down on Christians “

Amnesty International blasted the Islamic Republic of Iran for its sweeping violent crackdown on Christians and Dervishes, including imposing lengthy prison terms on the members of the religious minority groups.

At least 171 Christians were arrested in 2018 solely for peacefully practicing their faith.

Cvoices talks with Amnesty International about their 2018 report on Iran and minorities:

Cvoices: Amnesty International refers to Iran’s human rights situation in 2018 as the “Year of Shame”, as 7,000 people were arrested. How do you compare Iran’s religious minorities’ situation in 2018 to the situation in 2017?

Amnesty International: Due to the staggering scale of arbitrary arrests and detentions of different groups in Iran and our lack of access to the country, Amnesty International has not generally been able to document and compile statistics for the numbers of arrests and to find comparative figures, including on religious minorities. Having said that, we did document a serious deterioration in the human rights situation in 2018. We saw huge numbers of the Gonabadi Dervish religious minority arrested and prosecuted in 2018. This is something that we had not documented in recent years. We have been told by human rights organizations that document the arrest of Christians in Iran that there was also a rise in the number of Christians, including converts, who were arrested in 2018. Many of these took place in December, including in the lead up to the Christmas period.

Cvoices: In 2018, the Iranian State again targeted the Christian community around Christmas time. As many as 100 Iranian Christians, most of them of Muslim origin, were arrested by the end of 2018. In your opinion, why did the Iranian State target Christians during their most important religious celebration?

Amnesty International: The Iranian authorities have a history of cracking down on Christians, especially on Christian converts. In the lead up to Christmas, they target the Christian community in order to stop them from organizing and gathering in house churches and to stop individuals who have converted to Christianity from practicing their faith.

Cvoices: Iran is one of the countries that signed the Universal Human Rights Declaration, which was adopted by the United Nations and which clearly guarantees freedom of religion for every citizen. What other instruments does the UN have at its disposal that authorize it to act on behalf of religious minorities in Iran?

Amnesty International:Iran is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which guarantees the right to freedom of religion (Article 18). Article 18 of the ICCPR also protects the right of conversion: “This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice”.  In Iran, this right of conversion from Islam to another religion is not recognized and those who do convert face varying forms of persecution. Article 27 protects religious minorities from the denial of their right to practice their religion, including in community with other members of their group. On the issue of freedom to adopt or change religious belief, the UN Human Rights Committee, tasked with monitoring the implementation of ICCPR by states parties, has said: “the Committee observes that the freedom to ‘have or to adopt’ a religion or belief necessarily entails the freedom to choose a religion or belief, including the right to replace one’s current religion or belief with another or to adopt atheistic views, as well as the right to retain one’s religion or belief.”  It has also said: “[The fact that a religion is recognized as a State religion or that it is established as official or traditional or that its followers comprise the majority of the population, shall not result in any impairment of the enjoyment of any of the rights under the Covenant, including articles 18 and 27, nor in any discrimination against adherents to other religions or non-believers. In particular, certain measures discriminating against the latter, such as measures restricting eligibility for government service to members of the predominant religion or giving economic privileges to them or imposing special restrictions on the practice of other faiths, are not in accordance with the prohibition of discrimination based on religion or belief and the guarantee of equal protection under Article 26.”

Iran is also a state party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Articles 2 and 13 of the ICESCR guarantee the right of all to education irrespective of religion (thinking of the Baha’is here, who are banned from access to higher education). Articles 2, 6 and 7 guarantee the right to work and to work in just and favourable conditions. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) said in 2013: “the Committee is concerned that the State party discriminates against religious communities other than those belonging to Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism, which seriously and negatively affects the people’s enjoyment of economic, social, and cultural rights”.  The Committee urged the Iranian authorities to “take steps to ensure that people with beliefs other than the religions recognized by the State party can fully enjoy all aspects of economic, social, and cultural rights, without discrimination”.

The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief also issues reports on their findings to the UN Human Rights Council.

Cvoices: Iranian leaders, such as President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, in their interviews with international media or their speeches in international organizations claim that religious minorities have all of the rights to which they are entitled. Journalists and moderators almost never challenge these claims despite all of the facts that contradict the claims. In other words, Iranian leaders use Western media and organizations to promote a false discourse. How can Amnesty International, in collaboration with other human rights organizations, challenge the currently uncontested propaganda issued by Islamic Republic officials?

Amnesty International: We always try our best to do this through our work in press releases, Urgent Actions, reports and other work, including through the use of our social media channels.