Religious minorities still at risk in Iran

Published 17 December 2013  |  Carey Lodge
AP

A human rights organisation based in Glasgow has warned that the new Charter of Citizens' Rights produced by the Iranian government does not provide adequate protection for those belonging to minority faith groups.

The Global Minorities Alliance (GMA), which campaigns for the rights of minority groups and communities across the world, is calling for the President of Iran to reconsider the document and extend protections to include all members of its society.

Iran has a long history of human rights abuses and violence is rapidly escalating across the country, propelled by a legal system that permits the persecution of minority communities such as Iranian Bahai's.

Ataollah Rezvani, a member of the Baha'i community, was shot in the head on the outskirts of the city of Bandar Abbas in August this year and many leaders of the community have received harsh prison sentences of up to 20 years for practicing their faith.

President Hassan Rouhani released a draft of the Charter exactly 100 days into his presidency on November 26. He apparently consulted an estimated 200 experts, activists, academics and religious figures prior to its release, and has now given others a month to send in their comments for revision before the final version is drawn up.

He has insisted that it is not just a political gesture and that the aim of the Charter is to be a declaration of how Iran understands citizens' rights and how it will prioritise them in its activities. He said he hopes to make "all Iranians feel they are part of one nation, one identity, under one umbrella they can feel proud of".

Iran's Vice President for Legal Affairs, Elham Aminzadeh, says the Charter "draws a clear image of the rights…and opens the door for them to be acquainted clearly and in writing with their political, legal, economic, cultural and social rights".

However, it will not have an effect on existing rights, laws, obligations or international conventions, and will not create new ones. While some have praised the Charter, commending it as a step forward by the Iranian government, GMA has warned that failure to amend key laws which allow persecution will mean that many people are still vulnerable to the violation of their fundamental human rights.

Many have noted that the Charter overlooks religious freedom, though it does provide for those with disabilities, the elderly and the environment.

The Iranian government has asserted that the Charter must be understood "within the framework of the law" and "with due consideration to Islam", which means that only Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians will remain as religious minorities to be recognised officially by the State.

The Baha'i faith is not recognised by the Iranian constitution, and therefore discrimination against its followers remains lawful, despite it being the largest non-Muslim religious minority in Iran.

Nazila Ghanea, who teaches international human rights law at the University of Oxford, labels the exclusion of Baha'is from the Charter as "purposeful", and says their persecution will be "extended and entrenched further" if it remains unchanged.

"Another reading of the Iranian Citizens' Charter is…Baha'is in Iran are to not enjoy: freedom of thought and expression, identity, non-discrimination, the protection of their historical and cultural sites and monuments, parental rights, minority rights and religious freedoms," she says.

GMA's Vice-Chairperson, Shahid Khan, has urged the Iranian government to amend the Charter in order to expand human rights protections to include all religious minority groups, including the Baha'is.

"Human rights need to cover all individuals and not only those deemed 'legal' by discriminatory legislation," he said.

"If the Iranian government is not protecting all minorities, religious as well as linguistic and ethnic, then how can this be seen as a Charter to make all Iranians feel part of the same nation?

"Religiously-motivated murders will be allowed to continue if the rights of minority groups continue to be overlooked."

GMA is also calling for the release of persecuted Christian converts from jail, including American Pastor Saeed Abedini, who is currently serving an eight year sentence in Iran's most dangerous prison.

"GMA condemns these prison sentences and demands the release of religious prisoners," says Khan.

"If the Charter is a new focus on human rights by the Iranian government then perhaps some past injustices should be reconsidered."

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