The government severely restricted religious freedom. Government rhetoric and actions continued to create a threatening atmosphere for nearly all non-Shia religious groups, most notably for Bahais, as well as for Sunni Muslims, including Sufis; Christians, especially evangelicals; Jews; and Shia groups that did not share the government’s religious views. Government-controlled broadcast and print media continued negative campaigns against religious minorities, particularly Bahais. All non-Shia religious minorities suffered varying degrees of officially sanctioned discrimination, especially in employment, education, and housing.
The government continued convictions and executions of dissidents, political reformists, and peaceful protesters on the charge of moharebeh and anti-Islamic propaganda. The government executed at least 27 individuals on charges of moharebeh, according to credible NGO reports. Authorities at Zaehedan Prison in Sistan-Baluchistan executed a group of inmates on October 26, eight of whom were charged with moharebeh, according to human rights groups. Also on October 26, officials executed Kurdish political prisoners Habibollah Golparipour and Reza Esmaili at Uremia Prison and Salmas Prison, respectively, on charges that included moharebeh, according to human rights groups.
Christian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, imprisoned at various times over the last three years, was released on January 7, following a 2010 conviction of evangelizing Muslims. His lawyer and prominent human rights attorney, Mohammed Ali Dadkhah, remained in jail at year’s end, after a 2011 conviction of “propaganda against the regime.”
Christian pastor and dual U.S.-Iranian national Saeed Abedini, detained since September 2012, was sentenced in January to eight years in prison on charges related to his religious beliefs. Officials at Evin Prison reportedly subjected Abedini to physical and psychological abuse during his detention, and repeatedly denied him medical treatment and consular access. On November 3, authorities transferred Abedini to Rajai Shahr Prison, a facility reputed to be overcrowded and with insufficient medical care, placing him in a ward known to house violent offenders. Abedini reportedly remained in Rajai Shahr Prison at year’s end.
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the government has executed more than 200 Bahais, although there were no reports of Bahai executions during the year. The government frequently prevented Bahais from leaving the country, harassed and persecuted them, and generally disregarded their property rights.
The government arrested at least 42 Bahais during the year, and released some, according to Bahai organizations. At year’s end, at least 116 Bahais were in detention and 443 Bahai cases were still active in the judicial system, according to these organizations. In many cases the government charged them with violating Islamic penal code articles 500 and 698, relating to activities against the state and spreading falsehoods, respectively. The government often charged Bahais with “propaganda against the regime” or crimes related to threatening national security. Often the charges were not dropped upon the prisoners’ release, and those with charges pending against them reportedly feared arrest at any time. Government officials reportedly offered Bahais release from prison and relief from mistreatment in exchange for recanting their religious affiliation and making a declaration adopting Islam.
Seven Bahai leaders (Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Behrouz Tavakkoli, Saeid Rezaie, Vahid Tizfahm, and Mahvash Sabet) remained in detention at year’s end, serving sentences extended by the authorities in 2011 to 20 years. They were charged in 2011 with “espionage for Israel, insulting religious sanctities, and propaganda against the Islamic Republic.” The government did not allow any of the seven access to their attorney, Abdolfattah Soltani, who was arrested in September 2011, on charges including “spreading propaganda against the system,” “setting up an illegal opposition group,” and “gathering and colluding with intent to harm national security.” In March 2012, the authorities sentenced Soltani to 18 years in prison and banned him for an additional 20 years from practicing law. On November 2, Soltani began a hunger strike to protest the lack of medical care at Evin Prison, where he remained at year’s end.
Soltani’s wife, Massoumeh Dehghan, was charged with spreading propaganda against the state, sentenced in November 2012 to a one-year prison term, suspended for five years, and was banned for five years from leaving the country. On October 7, human rights groups reported that Branch 54 of Tehran Appeals Court upheld her sentence in full.
Authorities in Tonekabon arrested Zayullah Qadri, Soroush Gorshasebi, and Faramarz Lotf, on or around September 23, and transferred the three Bahai men to an unkown location, according to Bahai groups. Family members said they were assaulted by officials when they tried to visit the detainees, and two relatives were reportedly sprayed in the face with tear gas. Gorshasebi was freed on bail after 17 days in detention.
The government raided Bahai homes and businesses and confiscated large amounts of private and commercial property, as well as religious materials. On October 13, Ministry of Intelligence and Security agents raided 14 Bahai homes in Abadeh, confiscating computers, books, and other possessions, according to Baha’i World News Service. Authorities then summoned the occupants for questioning and reportedly warned them to leave Abadeh or risk being attacked by city residents.
The government continued to hold many Bahai properties it seized following the 1979 Revolution, including cemeteries, holy places, historical sites, and administrative centers. The government generally prevented Bahais from burying their dead in accordance with their religious tradition, and many of their cemeteries have been destroyed. On August 19, Iranian Christian news agency Mohabat News reported the Revolutionary Court in Sanandaj had issued an order for the destruction of a Bahai cemetery where over 40 Bahais are reportedly buried. Authorities had reportedly already sold the cemetery land at the time of the report.
There were reports of authorities placing restrictions on Bahai businesses or forcing them to close, asking managers of private companies to dismiss Bahai employees, and denying applications for new or renewed business and trade licenses. On October 5, authorities forcibly closed a business in Tonekabon owned by three Bahais: Soroush Gorshasebi, Sina Gorshasebi, and Omid Qaderi, according to human rights activists. One report said the reason for the closure had not been announced but noted that Bahais were forbidden to sell food items to Muslims and said officials often extended this ban to other items.
Although the government maintained publicly that Bahais were free to attend university if they did not identify themselves as Bahai, public and private universities continued to deny admittance and expel Bahai students, indicating the implicit policy of preventing Bahais from obtaining higher education remained in effect.
The government continued to imprison and detain members of the Bahai Institute for Higher Education. On October 8, courts tried Nazim Baqeri and sentenced her to four years in prison on charges of endangering national security through her association with the university. After their arrest for “membership in the Bahai community” in 2011, Fuad Moqaddam and Emanullah Mostaqim of the Bahai Institute for Higher Education were both sentenced in 2012 to five-year prison terms. Moqaddam reportedly began his five-year sentence at Evin Prison on May 11. A human rights NGO reported that Mostaqim, who had recently undergone open heart surgery and suffers from diabetes, reported to Evin Prison on May 20, to begin serving a five-year sentence and was transferred to Rajai Shahr Prison on May 30.
The government’s continuing seizure of Bahai personal property and its denial of access to education and employment eroded the Bahai community’s economic base and threatened its survival. Members of the Bahai community reported Bahai children in public schools faced attempts by their teachers and administrators to convert them to Islam. The detention of Bahai students continued. Leva Khanjani, a Bahai student who in August 2012 began a two-year prison sentence on charges relating to her participation in December 2009 post-election student protests, received a four-day furlough in July but was reportedly still in Evin Prison at year’s end.
Harassment and arrests of Sufis also continued. On July 10, Branch 15 of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court informed seven members of a Sufi order that it had sentenced them to prison terms ranging from seven-and-a-half to ten-and-a-half years on charges that included “membership in a sect endangering national security,” “disturbing the public mind,” and “establishing and membership in a deviant group.” According to international NGO Human Rights Watch, defendants Hamid-Reza Moradi, Reza Entesari, Amir Eslami, Afshin Karampour, Farshid Yadollahi, Omid Behrouzi, and Mostafa Daneshjoo reported due process violations including being prevented from meeting with their lawyers and from reviewing their case files, as well as ill treatment by Ministry of Intelligence and Security agents during their detention. All seven were reportedly in Evin Prison at year’s end. On July 18, Branch 2 of the Revolutionary Court in Shiraz informed four Sufis that it had sentenced them to prison terms ranging from one to three years on charges of membership in an “anti-government” group intent on endangering national security, according to Human Rights Watch. A Sufi-affiliated news site reported that several Sufi prisoners including Moradi suffered from malnutrition and a lack of medical care.
Human rights groups reported several instances of due process violations by authorities against members of the Sunni community. In March activists and human rights organizations issued a joint statement expressing concern about due process violations in the trials of Sunni imam Molavi Fathi Mohammad Naghshbandi and 11 other Sunnis sentenced to death for the January 2012 assassination of pro-government Sunni cleric Mostafa Jangi Zehi.
On June 5, International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran reported that 20 Sunni inmates of Rajai Shahr Prison in Karaj were convicted of moharebeh, a capital offense, and that many had admitted to the charge under torture. The source also reported that Sunnis in the prison were mistreated because of their beliefs.
The government actively denied Christians freedom of religion. Christians, particularly evangelicals, continued to experience high levels of harassment and surveillance. The authorities arrested Christians disproportionately, including members of evangelical groups, according to human rights activists. The status of many of these cases was not known at year’s end. Authorities released some Christians almost immediately, but held others in secret locations without access to attorneys. The United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran conveyed reports that authorities held at least 20 Christians in custody as of July. Prison authorities reportedly withheld proper medical care from some Christian prisoners, according to human rights groups. In one such case, Christian pastor Behnam Irani suffered from a blood infection without medical attention. Irani has also endured beatings by prison guards, according to human rights activists.
A court in Rasht informed four Christians on October 20 that it had sentenced them to 80 lashes each for drinking wine during communion and possession of a satellite antenna, according to a human rights organization. Authorities had arrested Behzad Taalipasand, Mehdi Reza Omidi (Youhan), Mehdi Dadkhah (Danial) and Amir Hatemi (Youhanna) during a Christian service at a house church in December 2012. Authorities carried out Taalipasand’s and Dadkhah’s sentences on October 30.
Christian convert Farshid Fathi, who was arrested in 2010 and sentenced in 2012 by Tehran’s Revolutionary Court to six years in prison for being the “chief director of a foreign organization in Iran and raising funds for the organization,” reported in a letter that he had been subjected to severe mental torture by officials at Evin Prison, according to an August 18 report by Iranian Christian news agency Mohabat News.
In May Pastor Farhad Sabokrouh, Shahnaz Jazan, Davood (David) Ali-Jani, and Naser Zamen-Dezfulifour, Christians arrested in December 2011, began serving one-year sentences for “missionary activities and anti-regime propaganda through spreading of Christianity,” according to Mohabat News. At year’s end, Ali-Jani was in Karoon Prison in Ahwaz while the other three were in Sepidar Prison, also in Ahwaz. Mohammad-Hadi (Mostafa) Bordbar, one of 50 Christian converts arrested in a December 2012 raid in Tehran, was informed on July 31that Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court of Tehran had sentenced him to 10 years in prison for membership in an “anti-security organization” and for convening with intent to commit crimes against Iranian national security, but was released on November 3 after an appeals court acquitted him of all charges. The trial of Armenian Christian pastor Vruir Avenessian, who was also arrested in the December 2012 raid, began on September 7 in the same court, where Avenessian reportedly faced charges of “action against national security” and “proselytizing Farsi-speaking citizens.”
Muslim converts to Christianity faced harassment, arrest, and sentencing. Many arrests took place during police raids on religious gatherings, which also included government confiscation of religious property. Plainclothes officials arrested Mohammad Reza Farid, Saeed Safi, and Hamid Reza Ghadiri on May 29 during a house service for Christian converts, according to a human rights organization. As of July 8, their families had not been able to obtain information about their detention conditions and authorities had not presented charges.
There were reports of arrests and harassment of Sunnis. Intelligence officials re-arrested Sunni activist Hossein Javadi on the charge of acting against national security after the Supreme Court had exonerated him from this charge and released him after three years imprisonment in Rajai Shahr Prison, according to human rights activists. At year’s end, Javadi was reportedly back in Rajai Shahr Prison serving the remainder of his original five-year sentence.
Shia religious leaders who did not fully support government policies or the supreme leader’s views also faced intimidation and arrest. Prison conditions remained poor for dissident Shia cleric Ayatollah Hossein Kazemeini Boroujerdi, who was serving an 11-year sentence on unspecified charges in Evin Prison, where officials reportedly continued to torture him and deny him access to medication for several health problems, according to human rights activists.
On May 7, Dr. Kamran Ayazi, a dentist serving a nine-year sentence on charges of moharebeh following his conviction of criticizing Islam on internet message boards, began a hunger strike to protest his transfer to solitary confinement following his complaints of poor nutrition in Evin Prison, according to human rights activists. In August 2012, news media reported allegations that Ayazi suffered severe bleeding after being flogged.
There were reports in August and September of increased enforcement of dress codes, according to human rights activists; those arrested were subject to fines or other punishment. In a possible easing of dress code enforcement, police officials announced in November that enforcement would be transferred from the Gashte Ershad (“Guidance Patrol”) to a new “social council” within the Ministry of the Interior.
The government enforced the prohibition on proselytizing by closely monitoring the activities of evangelical Christians, discouraging Muslims from entering church premises, closing churches, and arresting Christian converts. Authorities pressed evangelical church leaders to sign pledges they would not evangelize Muslims or allow Muslims to attend church services. Meetings for evangelical services remained restricted to Sundays. Reports suggested authorities regarded the act of allowing Muslims to visit a Christian church as proselytizing. Some Christian advocacy groups reported the government pressured Armenian, Assyrian, and evangelical churches to cancel all services in the Farsi language. Members of evangelical congregations were required to carry membership cards, photocopies of which had to be provided to the authorities. Security officials posted outside congregation centers subjected worshippers to identity checks.
Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officials arrested Christian pastor Robert Asserian in Tehran on May 21 during a prayer meeting at his Central Assemblies of God Church, according to advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide. Asserian was reportedly released on bail July 2. The IRGC gained oversight of churches in 2012, replacing the Ministry of Intelligence and Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, according to human rights activists. Christians of all denominations reported the presence of security cameras outside their churches, allegedly to confirm that no non-Christians participated in services.
Police units raided the houses and confiscated the properties of some Christians. On January 9, authorities in Tehran raided the houses of two Christians, known as Shahrzad Y. and Sam S., arresting both on charges of “formation and promotion of house churches and holding gatherings intended for committing crimes,” according to a Christian news agency. The authorities reportedly confiscated personal items during the raid including laptops, cameras, and religious books.
Official reports and the media continued to characterize Christian house churches as “illegal networks” and “Zionist propaganda institutions.” Arrested members of house churches were often accused of being supported by enemy countries. On October 12, Mojtaba Seyyed Alaedin Hossein, Mohammad-Reza Partoei, Vahid Hakkani, and Homayoun Shokouhi reportedly lost their appeals of convictions for spreading Christianity, disrupting national security, propaganda against the regime, and contact with foreign agencies, according to human rights activists. The four Christians, who were arrested during a February 2012 raid on a house church, were each sentenced to three years and eight months in prison.
Assyrian Christians reported their community was permitted to write its own textbooks which, following government authorization, were printed at the government’s expense and distributed to the Assyrian community. The government reportedly allowed Hebrew instruction but limited the distribution of Hebrew texts, particularly nonreligious texts, making it difficult to teach the language. The government required Jewish schools to remain open on Saturdays, a violation of Jewish religious law, to conform to the schedule of other schools.
With some exceptions, there was little government restriction of, or interference with, Jewish religious practice. Government officials, however, continued to sanction anti-Semitic propaganda in official statements, media outlets, publications, and books.
There were reports of government officials making anti-Semitic statements. On November 10, the hardline semi-official IRGC-affiliated news agency Fars News reported that IRGC Lieutenant Commander of the Navy Brigadier General Alireza Tangsiri said “the Israelis are Jews and the Americans are Christians. Our Quran stresses that they are not our friends.” While in office, former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continued to question the existence and the scope of the Holocaust and publicly called for the destruction of Israel. (Hassan Rouhani was elected president in June and sworn in on August 4, succeeding Ahmedinejad.)
Authorities also harassed and repressed the Sabean-Mandaean religious community in ways similar to its harassment of other minority religious groups, including often denying members of the community access to higher education and government employment.
There were reports of arrests and harassment of Sunni clerics and congregants. Many Sunnis reported discrimination; however, it was difficult to distinguish whether the cause of discrimination was religious or ethnic, since most Sunnis are also members of ethnic minorities. Sunnis cited the absence of a Sunni mosque in Tehran despite the presence of more than one million Sunnis in the city as a prominent example. Sunni leaders reported bans on Sunni religious literature and teachings in public schools, even in predominantly Sunni areas. Sunnis also noted the underrepresentation of Sunnis in government-appointed positions in the provinces where they form a majority, such as Kurdistan and Khuzestan, as well as their inability to obtain senior government positions. Residents of provinces with large Sunni populations, including Kurdistan, Khuzestan, and Sistan-Baluchistan, reported repression by the judiciary and security services, discrimination, lack of basic government services, and inadequate funding for infrastructure projects.
Security officials continued to raid prayer sites belonging to Sunnis. On October 16, security forces surrounded Sadeghiyeh Mosque in Tehran and prevented Sunni worshipers from entering to celebrate Eid al-Adha, according to human rights organizations.
The government repressed Sufi communities and their religious practices. Intelligence and security services continued their harassment and intimidation of prominent Sufi leaders. Government restrictions on Sufi groups and husseiniya (houses of worship) have become more pronounced in recent years. Authorities razed at least one Sufi home during the year, and there were reports of government officials driving Sufi families off their land and then transferring the property titles to cronies, according to human rights activists.
The government reportedly used the clerical courts to prosecute certain clerics for expressing controversial political ideas and participating in nonreligious activities, including journalism. On September 2, journalists reported the Special Clerical Court in Tabriz sentenced Sunni cleric Abdolsalam Golnavaz to six years in prison and permanently barred him from wearing clerical clothing on charges of criticizing authorities in Kurdistan province as a means of incitement” and “propagating Sunni views aimed at creating sectarian conflict.” On September 11, NGOs reported that dissident cleric and blogger Arash Honarvar Shojaee, convicted in 2010 on espionage charges and held in the Special Clerics Ward (Ward 325) at Evin Prison, was additionally charged with “insulting [former Supreme Leader] Imam Khomeini.” Shojaee reported that authorities refused to release him despite confirmation from the medical examiner that his health made him unable to endure a prison sentence.
UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran Dr. Ahmed Shaheed submitted his fifth report in October, in which he stated “members of recognized and unrecognized religions alike, including members of the Bahai, Christian, Sunni Muslim, Yarsan and other religious communities, are increasingly subjected to various forms of legal discrimination, including in employment and education, and often face arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment.”