AMBASSADOR SAM BROWNBACK: Thanks to all of you for being here today and taking part in this event. I want to thank International Christian Concern for putting it on, for hosting it, organizing it, and putting the word out. The United States stands for religious liberty. We stand for it for everybody everywhere, all the time, everywhere around the world. It is something that is in our DNA. It is part of who we are. And we’re going to continue to push it. This administration pushes it strongly. We believe it’s a fundamental right. It’s one of those rights that if you get it right, your economy will flourish, you’ll have less terrorism, you’ll have a more prosperous and open – and a society and a place where your people want to live, instead of fleeing. If you get it wrong, you’ll end up having more and more persecution. You’ll have more and more difficulties. You’ll have more and more terrorism. You’ll have less economic opportunity for people. And it’s a place your people will not want to live, and they’ll flee to other places. They’ll look for other opportunities in other regions and other countries of the world. People move now, and they move pretty aggressively, and it’s easy to see countries really that do open up and allow for people to engage in their culture and ones that push them out.
Perhaps nowhere is this case more prevalent today in the world, people being persecuted for their faith, than what’s taking place in the Islamic Republic of Iran. And I want to specifically address that situation here today in the forum that you have. You’ve got some experts – unfortunately, their expertise is built upon experience of a very difficult time – that will speak after me. They will have much more authority on this topic, unfortunately. I say that because they have experienced the persecution. They’ve been put in jail. They’ve had people harassed that are associated with their ministry work. And it’s terrible. It is awful. It’s despicable, and it’s something that shouldn’t take place in the world today.
In Iran, blasphemy, apostasy from Islam, and proselytizing of Muslims are crimes punishable by death. Minorities not recognized under the Iranian constitution – such as Baha’is and Christian converts – may not engage in public religious expression and are particularly vulnerable to discrimination, harassment, and arbitrary arrest. The courts use charges of “enmity against God,” “corruption on earth,” “insulting the sanctities,” and “disturbing national security” to target people who dissent from state-sanctioned policies and beliefs.
Over the past couple of years, we have witnessed numerous examples of the Iranian government’s disregard for religious freedom and other fundamental human rights. Last year, the regime arrested hundreds of Gonabadi Sufis – I’m sorry, it was taking me a second there – with at least one dying in custody, following clashes between protesters and security services. The regime later executed a Gonabadi Sufi bus driver, Mohammad Salas, for allegedly killing three police officers during the clashes, despite his lawyer and human rights group assertions that his trial was grossly unfair. And for good measure, the Iranian government followed up by throwing his lawyer in jail too. According to Human Rights Watch, the Iranian government has sentenced more than 200 such Sufis to lengthy prison terms and other punishments, in what the organization has described as “one of the largest crackdowns against a religious minority in Iran in a decade.” Today more Sufis are languishing in places like the Great Tehran Penitentiary, imprisoned in deplorable conditions alongside drug offenders and other criminals, and subjected to physical and psychological torture, all for simply exercising their human rights.
Many Iranian Christians, especially converts from Islam, suffer abuse at the hands of the Iranian authorities. In the lead up to Christmas last year, Iranian security services conducted raids on house churches throughout the country, detaining congregants for hours or days and interrogating them about their Christian faith. Branch 26 of the Tehran Revolutionary Court has been particularly notorious for convicting Christians on charges related to their religious beliefs or activities. In 2017, for example, the court sentenced Pastor Youcef to ten years in prison for “assembly and collusion against national security,” organizing home churches and preaching what they called “Zionist Christianity.” After an appeals court upheld the sentence in 2018, officers violently detained the pastor and took him to Evin Prison to serve his sentence.
The comprehensive abuse of the Bet-Tamraz family demonstrates the lengths to which the Iranian government will go to quash religious liberty. Pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz led a Farsi-language church in Iran until the authorities shut it down in 2009. But rather than fleeing the country, he courageously continued his work on behalf of the Christian faith. In 2017, Branch 26 of the Tehran Revolutionary Court sentenced him to 10 years in prison for “acting against national security by forming home churches, attending seminars abroad, and proselytizing Zionist Christianity.” In 2018, the court sentenced Pastor Bet-Tamraz’s wife to five years in prison on similar charges. And later that year, just for good measure, the court sentenced their son to four months in prison for “spreading Christian propaganda.” They are currently out on bail awaiting the results of their appeals. We call on the Iranian government to drop the ridiculous charges against them and allow them to practice their beliefs in peace.
The ruthless and relentless cruelty towards Baha’is is another hallmark of the Iranian regime. Following the Islamic Revolution 40 years ago, the authorities executed hundreds of Baha’is and imprisoned hundreds more. The government has arrested more than 1,200 Baha’is because of their religious beliefs since 2005 alone – and only because of their religious beliefs. Today dozens of Baha’is are in prison on specious charges, and while the government has released some high-profile detainees, such as the Baha’i leaders known as the “Baha’i 7,” it has only done so after they completed long jail terms for their supposed “crimes.” Just last week, the Center for Human Rights in Iran reported a revolutionary court in southern Iran sentenced seven Baha’is to three years in prison, all for simply responding to questions about their faith from Muslim guests in their homes. According to the U.S. Baha’i Office of Public Affairs, there were at least 49 Baha’is imprisoned in Iran as of March, all on false charges related solely to their religious belief.
The Iranian government’s comprehensive targeting of Baha’is seems designed to keep them impoverished and marginalized. Officials regularly employ anti-Baha’i rhetoric, close Baha’i businesses, and deny Baha’is access to education. Even worse, this hateful ideology appears to be spreading to places like Yemen. In a televised speech last week*, Houthi leader Abdel-Malek al-Houthi denounced the Baha’i faith in language similar to that used by Iranian leaders, calling Baha’is “satanic” and alleging they are at war with Islam. A Houthi-controlled court has charged more than 20 Baha’is with apostasy and espionage. Six Baha’is are currently in detention, including Hamed bin Haydara, who received a death sentence in January 2018 and is waiting on the result of his appeal. We urge the Houthis to overturn his death sentence and release him and all others detained because of their faith. The Iranian government’s approach to religious freedom is not a winning model, for either the Houthis or the Yemeni people.
Sunni Muslims in Iran also face government repression, including reportedly through extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, and torture in detention. In a report issued in March of last year, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran noted authorities have executed a disproportionately large number of Sunni Kurdish prisoners. Human rights NGOs have documented cases of prison guards beating Sunni prisoners, seizing their belongings, and insulting their religious beliefs. Residents of provinces with large Sunni populations report continued discrimination, including suppression of religious rights, lack of basic government services, and inadequate funding for infrastructure. Iranian authorities routinely deny Sunnis permission to build mosques, particularly in Tehran, forcing many Sunnis to rely on underground prayer halls to practice their faith.
So you might ask: What is the U.S. government doing to address the particularly severe violations of religious freedom taking place in Iran? For one, we are making it clear to the world that we stand with Iranians of all beliefs. The Iranian people, after all, are the longest suffering victims of this regime. While the Iranian government squanders billions supporting its terrorist proxies in Syria and Iraq, and supporting the Houthis in Yemen, public services in Iran are rapidly declining and people are hurting. The Iranian people have many good reasons to be frustrated with their leaders, but their government does everything in its power to suppress peaceful dissent. Our goal is to raise our voice alongside the many Iranians who are calling for greater respect for human rights and the rule of law in Iran.
We are using various tools at our disposal to hold Iran accountable for its failure to protect religious freedom for all. Last November, Secretary Pompeo re-designated Iran as a “Country of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Iran has been a CPC country since 1999. We continue to sanction Iranian government officials implicated in human rights abuses, as well as the institutions that facilitate such activity. Last year we hosted the first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, bringing more than 80 governments and international organizations and hundreds of civil society representatives together to discuss concrete ways to promote this vital human right of religious freedom. We issued multilateral statements of concern about the state of religious freedom in several countries, including Iran. We also invited survivors of religious persecution to speak about their experiences, several of which you will hear from today. This helps drive home the point that religious persecution is not a “theoretical” problem – it is a real problem affecting real people all over the world. And we’re thankful for those courageous individuals, Maryam and Marziyeh, who will also speak at this gathering later today. Thank you for being here and being willing to speak out.
Another aspect of our approach has been to speak with Iranian dissidents and members of the diaspora to learn more about the depths of the regime’s repression at home. This past March, I traveled to southern California and met with members of the Iranian diaspora community to discuss the state of religious freedom in Iran. I was impressed with the vibrancy of the community and their tireless efforts to celebrate the best of Iran and make life better for the Iranian people. In one meeting, I spoke with the pastor of a Farsi-language church. He had moved to the United States from Iran several years ago and recalled his abhorrent treatment at the hands of the Iranian security services officials that were handling him. During one interrogation, he said, the officer showed him a bullet, rolled it in his fingers, and said, “Every Christian should get one of these.” He said it was his faith in God that helped him endure his imprisonment and abuse. The ongoing work of the pastor, and of other Iranian-Americans in this area, is an inspiration to us all. I hope we can continue to collaborate with activists like these to advocate for a better future for Iran.
To the Iranian government, I would say, “Really, what are you afraid of?” “What harm could come from allowing Iranians to follow the dictates of their own conscience?” This should not be a difficult decision. Every time Iran’s leaders throw Iranians in jail because of their beliefs or shutter businesses because of their owners’ faith, and spout vitriol at vulnerable minorities, they are undermining their own country’s society and economy. How does arbitrarily closing a Baha’i shop – particularly given Iran’s economic woes – do any good for the Iranian people or its markets? How does barring people from getting an education, all because of the religion, enhance the Iranian workforce and prepare Iran to engage in a global economy? There is nothing noble about them leading a great nation into the ground by abusing the very people they are charged with serving. Iran, with its rich historical legacy and vibrant culture, deserves so much more. And the Iranian people deserve to live in a country where they can exercise their human rights, including their right to believe as they see fit.
Protecting religious freedom is not only the right thing to do; it is also in Iran’s best interest to do. Countries that respect religious freedom tend to be more stable and prosperous than those who do not. By empowering people to pursue their own truths, these countries build foundations of tolerance and trust that benefit their societies in innumerable ways. In such societies, denominations and faith groups organize as their leaders and members see fit, interfaith cooperation flourishes, and religious communities contribute significantly to social welfare and serve as a moral compass to their nations. We hope the Iranian government will one day choose this path and embrace religious tolerance, respect, and diversity – not only for the good of the world, but also for the good of Iran itself.
Thank you for convening this crucial discussion. My office and this government looks forward to working together with you toward an Iran the respects the rights of all of its people. God bless you all.
* last year [back to text]