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Ahmadinejad Arrives in New York on a Wave of Religious Repression

Paul Marshall

When Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits New York for the U.N. General Assembly, he is due to dine on September 21 with students from the Columbia International Relations Council and Association (CIRCA). A CIRCA spokesman says they are “thrilled to have this opportunity.” The students should use the opportunity to press Ahmadinejad on the following:

Currently Iran is outdoing itself in repression. In the aftermath of its violent attacks on the democratic opposition following the 2009 elections, the regime has been increasing arrests not only of political opponents but of the religiously differing. Jamsheed Chosky reports that Ayatollah Ahmed Jannati, chairman of the Council of Guardians and adviser to Ahmadinejad, has denounced non-Muslims as “animals who roam the Earth and engage in corruption.”

The government continues to target Baha’is. In 2008 it arrested seven Baha’i leaders and charged them with, inter alia, “insulting religious sanctities” “and “propaganda against the state.” When Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi agreed to defend them, she was attacked in the government-controlled media and denied access to her clients’ files. In March 2011, the seven were told without explanation that, despite an appeals courts lowering their sentences, they would serve the original term of 20 years.

Since the regime bars Baha’is from higher education, and much else, they have formed a private Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE). On May 22, authorities raided 39 homes of BIHE administrators, staff and students. At least seven are still detained. On September 10, a senior lawyer for the detainees, Abdolfattah Soltani, was himself arrested. Soltani co-founded the Defenders of Human Rights Center along with four other lawyers including Ebadi. The center was shut down by police in December 2008.

Arrests of Christians have accelerated and the regime is demonizing them as conspirators, “parasites,” and ‘like the Taliban.’ It has also seized 6,500 bibles. In 2009, one leader reported that “there are more arrests, of Christians as well as Baha’i, in the last several months … [than] maybe the whole 30 years before.”

Early this year, after passing a death sentence for apostasy on pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, the government conducted a massive roundup of Christians. As is becoming common in the region, it started its repression at Christmas.

According to Middle East Concern, the Supreme Court has instructed the Revolutionary Tribunal of Gilan Province to review Nadarkhani’s case, specifically whether he had been a Muslim. If the Tribunal concludes that he had, then the Supreme Court’s ruling is that he should be killed unless he recants his Christian faith. Reportedly, the review will begin on September 25. Among many other arrests, Behnam Irani, a member of Nadarkhani’s church, has been detained in Karaj since May 31 and five others have begun serving one-year sentences in Shiraz.

Zoroastrians are also under increasing pressure. Ayatollah Khomeini had a particular hatred of Zoroastrians because of their links to Persian history and nationalism. He accused the Shah of wanting “to revive Zoroastrianism.” Current Supreme leader Khamenei continues this animus and has referred to them as kaffers (infidels), a term usually reserved for Iran’s non-recognized religious groups.

On August 2, Mohhsen Sadeghipour began serving a sentence of 4.5 years in prison, 74 lashes, and a fine for “anti-regime propaganda by propaganda for the Zoroastrian faith and organizing ancient ceremonies.” Sadeghipour’s brother in law, Pouria Shahpari, was arrested on August 22 for blasphemy, also because of “propaganda for Zoroastrianism.” Pending appeal, he was sentenced to 2.5 years and 74 lashes. Sadeghipour and Shahpari were punished simply for defending and promoting their faith.

Of course, the regime also persecutes Muslims. After Khamenei gave a speech in Qom denouncing “false mysticism” and the dangers of religious minorities, including Sufis, it has arrested members of the Gonabadi dervish community. Amnesty International reports that, on September 3, members of the Basij militia gathered in Kavar armed with batons and chanting anti-dervish slogans, and set fire to stores displaying photos of dervish leaders. Subsequently, at least six people were shot and hospitalized. About 60 were arrested.

The regime also followed its increasing practice of arresting lawyers who defend minorities. Three attorneys who have defended dervishes, Amir Eslami, Afshin Karampour, and Omid Behruz have been arrested this month.

Iran’s religious repression is not some minor quirk. As Nina Shea and I recount in our forthcoming book Silenced, it is at the heart of the regime’s ideology. Dissidents and dissenters are charged with “friendship with the enemies of God,” “hostility towards friends of God,” “fighting against God,” “obstructing the way of God and the way towards happiness for all the disinherited people in the world,” “dissension from religious dogma,” “insulting the Prophet,” “insulting Islam,” “propagation of spiritual liberalism,” “promoting pluralism,” “calling into question the Islamic foundations of the Republic,” and, our favorite, “creating anxiety in the minds of … Iranian officials.”

Like all ideologies, it can rebound on its creators. Ahmadinejad has himself recently been accused of “witchcraft,” “experimenting with exorcism,” and “communicating with genies.” Mullahs have denounced his administration as containing “deviants, devils and evil spirits.” The regime’s greatest weakness may be its religious one.

Ahmadinejad obviously doesn’t expect to hear much criticism about these or other matters in New York. Despite the fact that, when he spoke at Columbia in 2007, he denied that there were any homosexuals in Iran, this month the regime has already executed three men for “lavat,” homosexual conduct. The CIRCA students will make their meal most worthwhile if they persistently and consistently, and by name, raise these and other cases.

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