The Status of Religious Freedom in Iran
Author: Fitzroy Lee
November 16, 2023
This article examines the principles and practices of religious freedom in Iran, beginning with what the constitution in Iran says about religious freedoms and how it compares to the Iranian government’s record in protecting religious freedoms. Why is it important to examine religious freedom in a country like Iran? Being informed about religious freedom in Iran is important for a number of reasons. First, all human beings deserve to enjoy all basic freedoms and therefore one should not only be concerned with freedom and human rights in one's own country. Second, knowing how and why religious and other freedoms in different countries are threatened allows us to learn from other countries' mistakes and can help us prevent it from happening in countries that are more democratic like the United States, Canada, and many Western European countries. Third, by knowing about threats to religious freedoms in other countries we can do something about it.
Before I delve into a discussion of the legal protections of religious freedom in Iran, I should note the complexity in assessing any legal protections. It is not as simple as reading the plain text of the law guaranteeing something like religious freedom. People often differ in their interpretation of a constitution or legal code. Sometimes people simply interpret laws to fit their world view. Take for example Jim Crow laws. The 14th and 15th amendments of the United States constitution were written to ensure that everyone would have the right to vote and that all people born in the U.S. should have equal protection as citizens. However, in practice, especially in the Southern United States, blacks were denied basic rights such as the right to vote and equal rights with regard to equal education and the right to marry whomever they wish, because the constitutional amendments were interpreted in ways that allowed the interpreters to erect administrative barriers to the enjoyment of these protections.
Iran’s constitution, like that of most modern countries, grants human rights protections to religious minorities, but in practice they do not always protect these rights. Given that Iran is actually a theocracy, you may be asking yourself: Does Iran really have protection for religious minorities in their constitution? If you were asking this question to yourself, then the short answer is yes. However, the longer answer is more complicated. Article 23 of Iran’s constitution says that “the investigation of individuals' beliefs is forbidden" and that "no one may be molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief.” So, there you have it: the constitution of Iran says that no one may be molested because of their religion. Something else you might not have known about Iran is that article 64 of Iran’s constitution requires that five seats in parliament have to be reserved for minority religions. Two seats are reserved for Armenian Christians, one for both Assyrian and Chaldean Christians, one for Jews, and one for Zoroastrians. Of course, this does not cover all religious minorities, but it is still an example of the kind of religious tolerance in the constitution of Iran. Also, even though most Islamic countries have laws against converting to another religion, Iran has no laws that criminalize apostasy.
Based on my discussion of Iran’s legal protection for religious freedom Iran may seem almost a model of religious tolerance, but in practice and in many other ways Iran is one of the most religiously intolerant countries. A U.S. News and World Report survey ranked Iran 83 out of 87 for religious freedom in 2022. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom included Iran in the list of Countries of Particular Concern in 2022. Reasons cited for Iran’s low rankings for religious freedom include its crackdown on interpretations of Islam that are different from the state’s interpretation of Islam, the difficulty of Sunni Muslims finding government jobs, getting an education and finding a place of worship, and Baha'is facing mass arrests. Non-Muslims are also banned from participating in certain government positions.
Earlier in the article I mentioned that some religions are required to be represented in parliament. However, a religion that is estimated to be the second largest religion in Iran has no protection at all in Iran. This religion is the Bahai Faith. One of the reasons why the Bahai Faith isn’t protected by the constitution is because Baha'is are considered apostates from Islam. In Islam you are considered an apostate if you convert from Islam to another faith. This may seem strange since I mentioned earlier that the penal code allows for people to convert to another faith. This is because even though the penal code of Iran does not criminalize apostasy, Iran still imprisons apostates. Apostates can be prosecuted based on laws about national security and insulting the supreme leader. The Baha'is are considered apostates since the Bahai faith is an offshoot of Islam. Also, the Baha'is are considered supporters of Israel and the West. In Iran there are also laws against blasphemy or speaking sacrilegiously about God or sacred things. So even though people in Iran cannot be targeted or molested specifically because of their religion, they can be prosecuted if they are accused of blasphemy. Sufi Muslims can also be prosecuted for being members of a deviant group. Surprisingly, even though Iran distrusts Israel, Jews are not particularly singled out, even though they suffer the general discrimination experienced by all non-Shiite religions. This is because Iran makes a distinction between the religion of Judaism and the country of Israel.
As I set out to show, even when religious freedoms are enshrined in a country’s legal code, citizens of that country may not enjoy those religious freedoms. In the case of Iran, religious freedom is clearly delineated in its legal code. Yet the Iranian government has curbed these freedoms through discrimination and persecution of non-Shiite religious groups. In some cases, they do so by blatantly ignoring the legal protections. In other cases, as with the Baha'is, the government undermines constitutional protections of religious freedoms with laws that re-interpret these constitutional provisions.
Apostasy: an act of refusing to continue to follow, obey, or recognize a religious faith
Blasphemy: the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for God
Delineated: having or forming clear edges or boundaries
Sacrilegiously: committing or characterized by sacrilege; having or showing a lack of proper respect for a sacred person, place, or object
Theocracy: government of a state by immediate divine guidance or by officials who are regarded as divinely guided
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