US Religious Freedom Reports: From Facts to Realities in Iran

Alireza Hashemi
USCIRF puts Iran among the worst countries in terms of religious freedom, while facts and American media say otherwise; Jews, Christian and Sunni Muslims enjoy relative freedom in the country.
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ParsiPolicy -  

The Iranian government has long been accused by the west of mistreating its own people and violating human rights. There was another attempt to document and demonstrate the violations earlier this month, when the US Department of State and the Congress-run Commission on International Religious Freedom each released their own annual reports.

 

Both lists have for a long time put Iran among the worst countries in terms of religious freedom, called Countries of Particular Concern, which are subject to economic sanctions and other punitive measures. The USCIRF report, which also includes policy recommendations to the US government, levels criticism against Iran for violating rights of nearly all religious minorities in the country and also some other groups perceived to be cults.

 

But the report lacks factual evidence supporting the claim that violations of religious freedom are so widespread in the country.

The report fails to mention facts and is based on dubious sources, including media reports that are open to bias and misinformation

Religious Problem or Nat’l Security Case?

As a matter of fact, 90-95 percent of the Iranian population is Shia Muslims, while Sunni Muslims comprise 5-10 percent of the nation and other religious groups less than 2 percent. The Iranian Constitution recognizes Zoroastrians, Christians and Jews as minorities and protects their religious freedom. They have been living peacefully in the country for hundreds of years, and there are no shortages of evidence displaying that.

 

A recent example is an interview with a senior Iranian rabbi on the Jews’ living conditions in Iran published by Al-Monitor, which says the Jews enjoy total freedom of religion and great social respect in the country.

 

Sunni Muslims also enjoy considerable religious freedom, demonstrated by the fact that they currently run over 15,000 mosques across the country and have 14 representatives in the parliament.

 

The report fails to mention all these facts. Instead, it mentions various judicial cases as examples of violations of freedoms. But a dominant majority of its cases are based on dubious sources, including media reports that are open to bias and misinformation.

It appears most judicial cases involving Bahai’s are related to political and security concerns and not religious concerns.

A big bulk of the report revolves around conditions of Baha'is, followers of a cult-like movement created in 1863 out of Islam.  Iran does recognize the rights of Baha'is as citizens, but it does not recognize Bahaism as a new religion, as its followers believe. The government also suspects some Baha'is, whose holiest site is located in the occupied Palestinian territories near Haifa, engage in espionage and other subversive activities.

 

We are not well positioned to judge individual judicial cases involving Bahai’s in Iran. But it appears most of them are related to political and security concerns and not religious concerns.  Any government needs to safeguard its national sovereignty and security, and this must be observed when judging such judicial cases. 

 

This might also be the case with non-Armenian Christians, who mainly are converts from Islam. Although Iran’s penal code, derived from sharia, prohibits Muslim citizens from leaving Islam but people who change or renounce their religious beliefs generally face no persecution unless they make a noise or openly propagate anti-Islam ideas.

 

How does Iran compare to Saudi Arabia?

The bias and prejudice against Iran is more evident when one draws a comparison between Iran and Saudi Arabia sections of the report. The USCIRF report does include Saudi Arabia among Countries of Particular Concern, but the approach and the policy recommendations are highly different than that of Iran.

 

The Saudi section adopts the familiar “reform” narrative that has been repeated by the western media and politicians for decades, resembling a public relations campaign.  While Saudi Arabia is still a CPC, the country “continues to reform in ways that are remarkable and transformative” and “the progress is undeniable”, the report says.

 

This is what the world has been hearing from the western politicians and the media on Saudi Arabia for decades. A notable example is the New York Times, who has taken flattering coverage to new extremes by working for over 70 years to put the House of Saud in a good light.

USCIRF report paints Saudi Arabia – a US ally - as a country that merely needs some “reforms” and Iran – an Official Enemy -  as a garrison state that perhaps is in need for regime change.

The report urges the US government not to impose sanctions on Saudi Arabia and maintain strong relationship with the oil kingdom to avoid slowing down the progress.  There are no talks of the fact that Saudi Arabia’s official ideology, Wahhabism, regards Shia Muslims who comprise 10-15 percent of the population as apostates punishable by death.Just last year, a six-year-old boy was beheaded in front of his mum in Saudi Arabia for being a Shia, according to reports. If this had been anywhere else in the world, the brutal killing of a kid would have grabbed the headlines, but he was killed in Saudi Arabia, and he was Shia.

 

There are numerous accounts on persecution and abuse of Shia Muslims, and many incidents prompt no media interest other than a couple of reports on hardly known websites. Shias can’t even run mosques outside some Shia-majority areas in eastern Saudi Arabia. Compare that to Iran, where Sunnis run mosques in the capital Tehran and the need for Islamic unity is enshrined in the Constitution.

 

Yet the USCIRF report paints Saudi Arabia – a US ally - as a country that merely needs some “reforms” and Iran – an Official Enemy -  as a garrison state that perhaps is in need for regime change. And interestingly, the report says zero words on the conditions of religious freedom in the United States.

 

But America, a self-proclaimed champion of human rights, has its own set of problems in terms of religious freedom. Look at the case of the siege of members of the Branch Davidian religious group in Waco, Texas, for an example.

 

Instead of lecturing the “bad guys”, the USCIRF’s top policy recommendation to the US government ought to be that Washington needs to take a grip and work hard to create a perfect model of religious freedom.