Iran: Religious Persecution Continues

Mahvash Sabet

Sabet explained that she and six other Baha’i leaders had initially faced seven charges, but the state was unable to present any actual evidence of its claims of espionage. Although the Baha’i faith was founded in Iran in the 19th century, its current leadership is based in Israel, and this has led Muslim opponents of the faith to attempt to discredit it by portraying it as being a collective agent of the Jewish state.

Perhaps in part because of this longstanding propaganda, the Iranian judiciary convicted Sabet and her co-defendants of “collaborating with enemy states” anyway, in spite of an absence of evidence and the legal objection that Iran was not officially at war with any country and thus could not have “enemy states.” This conviction was overturned, then reinstated, but the sentences for the Baha’i leaders were ultimately reduced from 20 years to 10, due to changes in the Iranian penal code which limited prison terms to the longer of the sentences in cases of multiple, simultaneous convictions. The remaining sentence for which Sabet served her 10 years was “forming an illegal group.”

The Baha’i religious community as a whole is effectively an illegal group, albeit in an unofficial fashion. Unlike Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism, the Baha’i faith is not recognized in the Iranian Constitution, but Iranian officials regularly deny a policy of persecution. Nevertheless, the actual existence of such a policy is well established and can be corroborated with reference to quotations from both the current and former supreme leaders of the Islamic Republic.

Commentary from these political-religious authorities has established that Baha’is are to be deprived of key rights of citizenship, including the right of access to education. The deprivation of this access has been a major point of focus in the regime’s persecution, as well as in the human rights activist community’s efforts to exert international pressure on the regime.

So far, it seems that this effort has been to little avail. IranWire has reported that on September 22, the date of enrollment in Iranian universities, at least 115 Baha’is were barred from signing up for classes despite having pass enrollment tests and otherwise completed the process as established. Traditionally, this blockage of enrollment has been done without formal explanations of the reason behind it. University administrators have tended to refer instead to an unspecified incompleteness of defect in the student’s file.

In a broad sense, this enrollment period was no different. But the IranWire report indicates that while students were not given formal explanations for their non-enrollment, at least some of them were told that they would be able to complete the process if they would write and sign letters disavowing their faith. In another report, CHRI was able to confirm the cases of two students who had been presented with this ultimatum, both of whom refused.

Notably, IranWire points out that this latest blockage of Baha’i enrollments took place just days after President Hassan Rouhani declared that minorities in the Islamic Republic have the same rights as Shiite Muslims who are ethnically Persian. Rouhani has been granted a reputation as a moderate by some members of the international community, and his reelection campaign in May of this year sought to appeal to reform-minded voters with renewed promises of a freer and more open Iranian society. But since winning reelection, the president has come under fire for failing to follow up on any such promises and for even disavowing some.

Rouhani himself was joined throughout his first term and into his second by various other officials who are prone to denying misdeeds by the Iranian regime but not addressing valid international criticisms. In 2015, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was widely ridiculed within the human rights community for declaring on American television, “We do not jail people for their opinions.”

The CHRI report on Baha’i enrollments pointed out that Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, a spokesperson for the Iranian judiciary, effectively reiterated this claim with specific reference to religious persecution, saying, “No individual is arrested simply for being a Baha’i or a follower of any other faith.”

The cases of Mahvash Sabet and her fellow Baha’i leaders clearly falsify this narrative, and Mohseni-Ejei’s comments seemingly evade the broader accounts of religious persecution including the blocked university enrollments, which are not limited to Bahais.

Iran Human Rights Monitor reported on Tuesday that the 18-year-old son of an Iranian Christian priest named Yousef Nadarkhani had also been barred from registering for classes. This apparent case of personal revenge serves to place additional pressure on Nadarkhani, who is serving a 10 year prison sentence, plus two years of domestic exile, for “leaving religion” and “inviting other Muslims to Christianity.”

Although, as mentioned above, Christianity is recognized in the Iranian Constitution, this only refers to citizens who are Christian by birth. Converting from Islam is illegal and can even be punished with death. And in practice, Christian and Jewish communities are still widely harassed and persecuted by authorities in the Islamic Republic, as well as by hardline supporters of the theocratic system.