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Iran's Religious Crackdown

Paul Marshall

As David French and my colleague Nina Shea have reported on The Corner, Iran has imprisoned and abused an American citizen, pastor Saeed Abedini and, following a trial on January 21, may sentence him to death. He is accused of undermining national security because of his work with Iran’s burgeoning house-church movement, most recently by raising money for an orphanage.

Pastor Saeed’s trial is just one facet of Iran’s increasing religious repression. Despite the release this month of Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who had been re-imprisoned at Christmas, and of Pastor Vruir Avanessian, arrested on December 27, Iran is widening its persecution of minorities.

Pastor Youcef must still return to prison in Rasht next month to complete documentation before possible final release. Pastor Vruir has had to submit the title deeds of his property as bail and been told that he will face a court hearing, though not what the charges against him are.

Pastor Vruir was arrested during a raid by fifteen security agents on a house church meeting of about fifty Christians in Tehran. All those present were required to fill out a pre-prepared questionnaire, including their contacts, email addresses, social media ID, and password information, together with details on how they had become Christians. Their mobile phones were seized and they were told that they would be interrogated again.

A few days later, on December 31, Christians Behzad Taalipasand and Mohammed-Reza Omidi were arrested in raids on their homes in Rasht and were jailed in a Ministry of Intelligence and Security detention facility. Both face charges of action against national security.

At least 20 other Christians are currently detained because of their faith. Pastor Farshid Fathi has been held in Evin prison since December 2010, and Pastor Behnam Irani, held in Ghezal Hesar prison since May 2011, is being denied medical treatment for his serious health problems.

Of course, Iran does not confine its religious repression to Christians. Its persecution of Baha’is is perpetual, including the imprisonment of Baha’i leaders, but this too has increased recently. The Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) reports that on January 13, Shahin Negari, one of the professors at a Baha’i virtual university, who was previously arrested for his work, was re-arrested and now faces four years imprisonment. Currently there is no information on his whereabouts.

HRANA also reports the recent arrests of other Baha’is — the October 14 arrest of Ramin Shahyar, the December 23 arrest of Farshid Dadvar, the January 11 arrest of Shakiba Vahdat, and the January 19 arrest of Anisa Fana’ian.

Even Baha’i children are being imprisoned along with their mothers. (my thanks to Michael Rubin in Commentary) Zahra Nik-A’in and Taraneh Torabi, Baha’is sentenced to 23 and 20 months in prison respectively, are imprisoned in Semnana prison’s women’s sard. Zahra has an 11-month-old son and Taraneh has a five-month-old son, both of whom are also in the prison. All have health problems and need medical care, which they are being denied.

Meanwhile, Pastor Youcef’s lawyer, Mohammed Ali Dadkhah, remains in prison. Dadkhah, a prominent human-rights lawyer, was sentenced to ten years imprisonment and disbarred in September 2012 for “actions and propaganda against the Islamic regime” and keeping banned books in his home. The regime punishes the lawyers who defend its targets, including by imprisoning attorney Abdolfattah Soltani, who has defended many Baha’i cases, and those who defend Sufis, and there is no doubt that Dadkhah is imprisoned in reprisal for his defense of unpopular clients.

The fact that Iran, despite current pressures, attacks peaceful and usually apolitical minorities shows that religious ideology remains a major determinant of its actions. It also shows that the regime is weak. Minorities are growing because many Muslims reject their rulers’ version of Islam.

Iran is also susceptible to pressure, as Pastor Youcef’s release shows. Members of Congress have written urging the State Department to act in Saeed’s case and to press third countries that have diplomatic relations with Iran to do so also, as has the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, yet so far without response.

Even apart from the fact that Saeed is an American citizen, the administration should realize that religious freedom can be a key element in changing Iran, and we should press it to do so.

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