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Human Rights Watch Urges Government to End Persecution and Official Discrimination Against Religious and Ethnic Minorities

New York, September 24, 1997)--The government of Iran, under the leadership of Shi'a Muslim clerics, has engaged in the flagrant persecution of religious minorities, notably Baha'is and evangelical Christians, Human Rights Watch charged in Iran: Religious and Ethnic Minorities: Discrimination in Law and Practice, released today.

The 38-page report documents state-sponsored discrimination against all non-Shi`as including Sunni Muslims, and against non-Persian ethnic minorities. Human Rights Watch urges the new government of President Mohammed Khatami to implement enforceable legal safeguards available to all and to root out discrimination on the basis of religion or ethnic origin.  
"Iran's constitution provides only qualified commitments to the principle of non-discrimination on the basis of religion or ethnic identity," said Hanny Megally, executive director of Human Rights Watch/Middle East. "In practice, these qualified provisions have proved to be no protection against what has become widespread, institutionalized discrimination and, in the case of Baha'is and Evangelicals, outright persecution."  
Iran's population of more than sixty million contains within it sizable ethnic minorities, including Azaris, Baluchis, Kurds, Arabs, Turkamen, Lurs, and other groups. Most Kurds, Baluchis and Turkamen are Sunni Muslims, making them part of a religious minority as well. Shi'a Islam is the religion of approximately 80 percent of Iranians and is established by the constitution as the state religion. There are also smaller religious minorities, including Christians of various denominations, Baha'is, Zoroastrians and Jews.  
Human Rights Watch analyzes Iran's constitution, penal code and other legislation affecting freedom of religion and treatment of minorities. Hostility towards Baha'is has resulted in the severe persecution of individual members of the Baha'i community and no toleration of organized Baha'i religious activities. Since 1983 Baha'i assemblies have been banned, and participation in Baha'i activities, such as festivals or acts of worship in private homes, is liable to prosecution. The government's intent to punish Baha'is for their religious beliefs is at best only thinly veiled. The egregious cases of Baha'is sentenced to death, described in this report, serve only to underline the severity of the persecution.  
The government has tolerated the church activities of the Orthodox Christian minority communities, which account for more than 90 percent of Iran's Christian population of 200,000, although in their interaction with Muslim society they are subject to discriminatory treatment. By contrast, the Western origins of Iran's Protestant churches and their enduring links with similar congregations in the United States and Europe, together with the churches' readiness to accept and even seek out Muslim converts, have fueled strong government hostility. Persecution of Iran's evangelical Protestants intensified in the 1990s, and four church leaders have died in circumstances suggesting government involvement.  
Sunni Muslims are by far Iran's largest religious minority, making up as much as 20 percent of the population. The great majority of Iranian Kurds, Baluchis and Turkamen are Sunni Muslims. The ascendancy of the Shi'a clergy since the formation of the Islamic Republic has accentuated Sunni grievances. Sunni Kurds and Baluchis have seen their aspirations for greater autonomy and respect for their rights to religious freedom denied. Friday prayer leaders, even in Sunni mosques, are appointed by the central authorities, and Shi'a proselytizing is encouraged. Several prominent Sunni leaders one Kurd and three Baluchi have died or been killed in recent years in suspicious circumstances. Some leading Sunni Baluchi opposition figures have fled the country to avoid imprisonment. In Karachi in March 1996, the son of Iran's most prominent Sunni cleric was gunned down his colleagues say by Iranian government agents.  
The main grievances of the Azari community at 15 to 20 million Iran's largest ethnic minority are cultural. Those who speak up for Azari rights are labeled by government officials and the state-controlled media as separatists or Turkish spies. The case of Muhammad Ali Chehregani, an Azari candidate in the March 1996 parliamentary elections whose disqualification from the ballot sparked widespread civil unrest in Tabriz, demonstrates the sensitivity of the Azari issue.  
Iranian Arabs, an ethnic minority centered in southwest Iran, also have cited significant restrictions on their language and culture, and on their right to participate effectively in decisions affecting the area in which they live.  
Human Rights Watch calls on the Iranian government to take steps to remove all provisions from its constitution that contravene its obligations in international law to uphold the principle of the right to equality before the law for all its citizens, regardless of religion or ethnic background, and to cease its persecution of Baha'is and evangelical Christians.  
Copies of Iran: Religious and Ethnic Minorities: Discrimination in Law and Practice are available from the Publications Department, Human Rights Watch, 485 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10017 for $8.50 (shipping in North America) and $16 (shipping internationally  

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