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Iran: Religious Minorities Still Under Attack in Iran

Despite government rhetoric on religious freedom in Iran, it is extremely difficult to be anything but Shia Muslim in today's Iran. The country's religious minorities still face harsh repression, despite earlier hopes that Hassan Rouhani, elected to Iran's presidency in 2013, would bring much-needed reforms.

Taken with kind permission from the Newsletter "Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief“ edited by Willy Fautré on behalf of Human Rights Without Frontiers Int'l - www.hrwf.net  

Brussels - Despite government rhetoric on religious freedom in Iran, it is extremely difficult to be anything but Shia Muslim in today's Iran. The country's religious minorities still face harsh repression, despite earlier hopes that Hassan Rouhani, elected to Iran's presidency in 2013, would bring much-needed reforms.
 
These were among the conclusions of a panel discussion in the European Parliament today, hosted by MEP Làszló Tökés in collaboration with Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF), an independent non-governmental organisation promoting human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
 
The seminar also marked the release of HRWF's 2013 World Report on the Freedom of Religion or Belief. The report highlights several countries of particular concern, including Iran, and annexes a prisoners list which references hundreds of people who were detained in 2013 due to legal restrictions on their basic rights to freedom of religion or belief.
 
"Freedom of religion or belief is a human right guaranteed by Article 18 of the Universal Declaration," commented Willy Fautré, director of the Brussels-based organisation, "yet last year an increasing number of countries arrested, detained and sentenced believers and atheists to various prison terms for practising the religion or belief of their choice."
 
Iran has historically been home to various faith and cultural traditions; however, the space for free expression has closed significantly in recent years. "In Iran we witness the sadly paradoxical situation where an authoritarian regime exerts power over a largely tolerant society," said HRWF Policy Adviser Mark Barwick.
 
Mr Tökés called the human rights situation in Iran "very worrying," adding "regardless of the religion an individual follows, no one should be persecuted for their beliefs."
 
Majid Golpour, researcher and professor at Brussels' Free University, outlined the religious and ideological foundations of the power structures in Iran today. The current regime, established after the Shah was overthrown in 1979, has long lacked legitimacy, he said. Preserving and maintaining power continues to be its chief objective.
 
Rachel Bayani spoke on behalf of the Baha'i communities in Iran, the country's largest religious minority. In Iran, Baha'i faith is considered heretical to Islam and is systematically suppressed. Scores of Iranian Baha'is are serving extended prison sentences for dubious charges like "espionage" and "endangering national security." Christian Solidarity Worldwide also testified to the suppression of Christians, Sufis and others who are in prison for similar reasons.
 
"The challenge for the EU," stressed Fautré, "which last year adopted Guidelines on Freedom of Religion or Belief, is now to put in place effective implementation mechanisms which prioritise countries that grossly violate these freedoms, including the freedom to change one's religion or the right to worship, even in private, and provide for prison terms and even the death penalty in such cases." It is clear that Mr Rouhani's Iran would figure prominently among these countries of priority.
 

Religious Minorities in Iran under Rouhani's Presidency

Keynote Speech of MEP László Tőkés


18 March 2014. European Parliament, Brussels

Ladies and Gentlemen,

As a Member of the European Parliament for the past six years, one of my main aims has been to promote freedom of religion or belief in the world, as a fundamental human right, in addition to the other fundamental rights and values the EU is founded on. Being the coordinator of EPP group in the Human Rights Committee I was in particular in the position to express my concern for cases of human rights violations - and as the reality shows, such cases are unfortunately common and reoccurring. As the European Parliament is the most vocal EU institution committed to follow up on these cases, we have passed several resolutions on the subject, held numerous similar events and continued dialogue with the EEAS, the Commission and Member States on how to better protect those persecuted for their beliefs, how to hold those responsible accountable and how to stop impunity.

Today's event on the situation of religious minorities in Iran follows this approach. As a result of grave and on-going persecution that the country's minorities have been facing, it is urgent that we get more engaged for their protection. For this reason I am grateful for the 2013 Freedom of Religion or Belief World Report of Human Rights Without Frontiers that will be presented today and the Freedom of Religion or Belief and Blasphemy Prisoner's list for 2013. Such work is valuable contribution to research conducted on human rights violations in the world. Your recommendations are indispensable to our efforts to represent the issue and put pressure on other EU institutions as well as the international community.

On Iran, UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon released his annual report for 2013 on the situation of human rights in the country, saying that there was "continued concern" about human rights. No "serious improvement" was visible, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran added. The situation of human rights in Iran is very worrying. The government denies freedom of religion to members of Iran's largest non-Muslim religious minority, the Baha'i. According to the Baha'i International Community, 114 Baha'i are in Iran's prisons as of September 2013. Non-Shia Muslim minorities, including Sunnis, also face discrimination.

Many of the ethnic minorities in Iran practice Sunni Islam - such as Arabs, Balochis, Kurds and Turkmen - making them doubly targets for discrimination for both their Sunni faith and ethnicity. For Christians things have grown worse in recent decades, especially in the last few years. They make up less than half of 1 percent of Iran's roughly 80 million people. There could be as many as half a million Christians in the country. Most of them are ethnic Armenians and Assyrians who are able to practice their own Orthodox faith, but those who converted from Islam to Evangelical Protestantism are more likely to be harassed, imprisoned or even murdered.

Regardless of the religion an individual follows, no one should be persecuted for their beliefs in Iran. But no one should be persecuted for their beliefs anywhere in the world. This is why we will continue speaking out for their protection here today and will commit to doing so in the future.

Thank you for your attention.

László Tőkés

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