Iran’s ongoing war against its religious minorities

Haidar Khezri | Published: 00:00, Feb 25,2020


ON FEBRUARY 3, the Islamic Republic upheld death sentences for seven Sunni Kurds after some ten years of holding them in detention on charges of Muharibih (waging war against God), and spreading propaganda against the regime. Earlier this year, the Islamic Republic officially barred Iranian Baha’i citizens from holding national ID cards, thereby denying them the basic rights of a citizen, and removing the ‘other religions’ option from official forms.


Criminalising religious minorities

IRAN’S constitution names the Twelver Ja’fari School of Shi’a Islam as the state religion. It recognises ‘Zoroastrian, Jewish and Christian Iranians’ as the only recognised religious minorities. That excludes the Sunnis, Yaresan (Ahl-e Haq), Erfane Halgheh and the Baha’is from the minimum protections and recognitions that have been granted by Iran’s Islamic Constitution. Although Zoroastrian, Jewish and Christian (especially converts) minorities of Iran have historically been persecuted, imprisoned, executed and forcibly exiled, Sunnis and Baha’is have faced the most brutal persecution over the last four decades. According to Human Rights Activists in Iran, in 2019, Baha’is, Sunnis and Christians respectively have been the most persecuted by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

In Iran, where the Baha’i religion was founded, universities under the government’s direction refuse to admit Baha’i students. Baha’i cemeteries have been destroyed, and the current supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has confiscated property from Baha’i families. Javaid Rehman, the UN special rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran stated in his most recent report that ‘over the past 40 years, the Baha’is, considered to be the largest non-Muslim and unrecognised religious minority in the Islamic Republic of Iran, numbering an estimated 350,000, have suffered from the most egregious forms of repression, persecution and victimisation.’

Similar to the Bahai’s, and in August 2016 alone, Iran executed 25 Sunni Kurds on charges of Muharibih. In 2018, Iran became the world’s second leading state executioner, after China. Although Iran reduced its number of executions in the last few years, mainly due to a change in the law about narcotics offences, execution of racial and religious minorities continues in full force.

Dozens of Christians, including converts, were subjected to harassment, arbitrary detention and prison sentences for practicing their faith. Raids on house churches continued, states Amnesty International in its 2019 review of the situation of human rights in Iran.

Many of the officials, who are suspected of being involved in mass extrajudicial executions, continue to hold positions of power in the judicial system of Iran. In 2017, Alireza Avaei was appointed as Iran’s minister of justice. In 2019, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appointed Ebrahim Raisi as the head of Iran’s judiciary. Raisi — similar to Avaei and his predecessor (Mostafa Pour Mohammadi, Iran’s minister of justice from 2013 to 2017) — was a member of the ‘Death Commissions’ that ordered the extrajudicial killings of thousands of prisoners, including the Kurds in 1988. His appointment has ended any remaining hope of salvation for political prisoners, especially those pertaining to racial and religious minorities. ‘The selection of Raisi to serve as head of the judiciary will send a clear message: the rule of law has no meaning in Iran, and those who participated in mass murder will be rewarded,’ said Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director of Centre for Human Rights in Iran.

Raisi’s selection came after such minorities, particularly the Kurds, voted for his opponent, president Hassan Rouhani, in the country’s 2017 presidential election. The recent persecution against religious minorities exacerbates an ongoing conflict between conservatives and ‘reformists’ over the upcoming 2020 parliamentary elections, and the 2021 Iranian presidential election.


IRGC, Islamic Revolutionary Courts and Muharibih

THE overwhelming majority of the current top echelons of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps began their careers in the Kurdish region when the Kurds rebelled against the imposition of Islamic rule in 1980, creating the first serious crisis for the revolutionaries. Similarly, the overwhelming majority of the current top revolutionary judges in Iran also began their careers in the Kurdish regions.

The first supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued his infamous Jahad fatwa in 1980 against the Kurds and other dissidents killing more than 30,000. He appointed the revolution’s notorious ‘hanging judge,’ Ayatollah Khalkhali, to head the newly created Revolutionary Courts. Hundreds of Kurds were executed by Khalkhali on charges of Muharibih. Khalkhali frequently sentenced defendants to death in summary trials where he acted as both judge and prosecutor, without a jury or defence lawyers.

Current revolutionary judges, such as Abolqasem Salavati, Mohammad Moghiseh and Ali Razini, have invoked the term Muharibih in the context of cracking down on the recent protests in Iran, particularly since the presidential election protests of 2009. By using a legal ideal and vaguely worded offences such as Muharibih — which has been designed at the first place to safeguard Muslims — for punishing the political oppositions, the Islamic Republic has aimed to dehumanise the opposition, particularly religious and racial minorities.

For example, in 2016, the revolutionary judge Abolqasem Salavati accused Narges Mohammadi, an Iranian human rights activist and the vice-president of the Defenders of Human Rights Centre, of collaborating with the Islamic State. Narges Mohammadi is one of Iran’s most well-known human rights advocates. She won the 2009 Alexander Langer Award, the 2011 Per Anger Prize, the 2016 Award of the German city of Weimar and the 2018 Andrei Sakharov Prize for human rights in Iran.

History has shown that in Iran, during times of national and global crisis, persecution of minority religious groups intensifies. The Islamic Republic regime and the IRGC are still struggling with the aftermath of the 2019–2020 protest movement that rocked cities across Iran which resulted in the deaths of 1500 Iranians, and the killing of Qasem Soleimani by a US airstrike, which brought US-Iran tensions to the precipice of war and led to the shooting down of the Ukraine Airline flight 752 by Iran, which killed all 176 people on board.

As tensions rise with the US and the global community, the state sanctioned persecution of the Iranian people, especially of religious minorities, will increase. The recent imprisonment and violence against religious minority dissidents in Iran should not go unnoticed. Such brutal, unjust, inhumane and extrajudicial imprisonment and executions must be investigated., February 24. Haidar Khezri is an assistant professor in the department of modern languages and literatures at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, USA.

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