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State Department Religious Freedom Report Spotlights ‘Horrific’ Situation in Iran

avatar by Ben Cohen

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the May 2018 launch of the annual International Religious Freedom Report, watched by Amb. Sam Brownback. Photo: Reuters / Mary F. Calvert.

Iran and Saudi Arabia were among the Middle Eastern countries whose records on religious freedom were severely criticized on Tuesday, with the publication of the US State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2017.

In remarks at a press briefing to introduce the annually-compiled report, Sam Brownback — the former Kansas governor and senator who was confirmed as US ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom this past February — highlighted the fact that “Saudi Arabia does not recognize the right of non-Muslims to practice their religion in public and imprisons, lashes, and fines individuals for apostasy, blasphemy, and insulting the state’s interpretation of Islam.”

Turning to Iran — the Shi’a rival of Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies — Brownback painted a grim picture of life for religious minorities in the Islamic Republic.

“We hear and see horrific reports coming out of Iran on the lack of religious freedom and the persecution of people that aren’t in the majority faith stream and practicing as the government directs,” Brownback said.

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“We see a radical export of that philosophy as well out of Iran and trouble in many other countries in the Middle East,” he continued.

But while Brownback expressed no optimism about a liberalized religious regime in Iran — first designated a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) in the 1999 edition of the State Department’s report — he did cautiously praise the reforming tendencies of Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.

“For years, we’ve reported on the state of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia,” Brownback said. “Today, I think we have some actual opportunities for that state to change and for it to get much better.”

Among the numerous offenses highlighted in the report’s section on Iran was the arrest of a group of Jews at the end of 2017, amid allegations of synagogue vandalism.

“In December media reported police arrested several Jews on unknown charges; the arrests were widely believed to be related to their religious affiliation,” the report stated. “The arrests followed reports of attacks on two synagogues in Shiraz over consecutive nights. In the first instance, attackers broke into the Kenisa’eh Hadash (New Synagogue) and the Hadash Synagogue and desecrated two Torah scrolls and more than 100 prayer books, destroyed furnishings, tefillin, and prayer shawls, and stole silver.”

The report examined the influence of Iran’s official interpretation of Islamic Sharia law on the regime’s penal code, which prescribes “the death sentence for proselytizing and attempts by non-Muslims to convert Muslims, as well as for moharebeh (‘enmity against God’) and sabb al-nabi (‘insulting the prophet’).”

Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians are the only religious minorities tolerated by the regime within carefully-defined limits, while non-recognized faiths — such as the Baha’is and Yarsanis — are subjected to harsh discrimination that effectively classifies them, in legal terms, as less than human.

“The government bars Baha’is from all government employment and forbids Baha’i participation in the governmental social pension system,” the report stated. “Baha’is may not receive compensation for injury or crimes committed against them and may not inherit property. A religious fatwa from the supreme leader encourages citizens to avoid all dealings with Baha’is.”

The section on Iran also documented numerous instances of the death sentence being passed against religious activists — in marked contrast to the two Shi’a men released by the authorities in October 2016, despite their confessing to the murder of a Baha’i because of his religious faith.

The report’s publication was also the occasion for the announcement of a new, ministerial-level interfaith initiative by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Pompeo said he was looking forward “to hosting my counterparts from likeminded governments, as well as representatives of international organizations, religious communities, and civil society” at “the first ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom at the Department of State” on July 25-26.

“This ministerial, we expect, will break new ground,” Pompeo said. “It will not just be a discussion group. It will be about action. We look forward to identifying concrete ways to push back against persecution and ensure greater respect for religious freedom for all.”

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