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Iran's Minority Rights: Constitutional Guarantees vs. Discriminatory Realities

March 4, 2024
Ashkan Khosropour
6 min read
While Iran's constitution officially recognizes and guarantees rights for religious minorities, discrimination against them persists.
While Iran's constitution officially recognizes and guarantees rights for religious minorities, discrimination against them persists.

While Iran's constitution officially recognizes and guarantees rights for religious minorities, discrimination against them persists.

There is a stark contrast between official guarantees and the challenging realities they face, including employment barriers, property seizures, and restrictions on religious ceremonies.

The Islamic Republic officially recognizes three religious minorities—Christian, Zoroastrian, and Jewish—granting them freedom to practice their rituals, teachings, and personal affairs under Article 13 of the Iranian constitution.

Additionally, they are allowed a maximum of five representatives in the parliament. Baha'is, Iran's largest non-Muslim religious minority, are not recognized under teh country’s constitution and are persecuted in all areas of life.

However, the lived reality starkly contradicts these constitutional provisions. Sunni Muslims, another religious minority, also face discrimination in various aspects of life.

These minorities encounter obstacles in obtaining government positions, face bias in selection processes, and suffer violations of their legal rights, including the right to conduct religious ceremonies freely.

This so-called freedom is fragile and dependent on the judgment of a mujtahid, an Islamic scholar who has achieved the highest level of expertise in interpreting Sharia law. The mujtahid's rulings can override constitutional provisions through a fatwa, or religious decree. 

Moreover, the ambiguity and interpretability of the law often leaves room for judges to issue arbitrary decisions, exacerbating the vulnerabilities of minority communities.

Ban on Government Jobs for Non-Muslims

After the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, a decree banned non-Muslims from holding official positions in government institutions.

This prohibition extended to educational departments nationwide and the armed forces, including the army, navy, and police.

However, this directive was somewhat relaxed during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Regardless of their religious affiliation, individuals who had attained officer ranks in the former Pahlavi government were allowed to serve on the front lines and be recognized as "martyrs."

Nevertheless, unofficial minorities, such as followers of the Baha'i faith, were not acknowledged as martyrs.

Despite fulfilling mandatory military duties, officially recognized minority members are systematically barred from joining any armed forces branch.

Over time, additional prohibitions were imposed on these positions, further restricting opportunities for minorities.

The enforcement of these regulations often relied on the subjective judgment of authorities, leading to arbitrary decisions.

The case of Sepanta Niknam, a representative of the Yazd City Council, illustrates the discrimination faced by official minorities within the Islamic Republic.

In 2017, after Niknam's election to the city council, a failed candidate, Ali Asghar Bagheri, attempted to prevent Niknam from assuming his role, citing his non-Muslim status.

Bagheri argued, based on a concept in Islamic law, that non-Muslims should not have authority over Muslims.

Despite a widespread outcry against this discrimination, Niknam was eventually reinstated to the Yazd City Council with the approval of the Expediency Determination Assembly.

However, when Niknam later sought to participate in the Tehran City Council elections, he was disqualified for allegedly "not adhering to Islam."

Unpunished Killings: Denial of Minorities Right to Retribution

Constitutionally recognized minorities are not afforded the same rights as Muslim individuals in cases of murder or accidental death.

Under the Islamic Penal Code, if the victim is Muslim, their surviving relatives, known as guardians of the deceased, have the right to ask for retribution or restitution.

However, if the victim belongs to an official religious minority, their relatives are denied the right to retribution, and the perpetrator is only required to pay a ransom.

Furthermore, in cases of accidental death, such as in car crashes, the ransom must be paid by the insurance company, resulting in virtually no accountability or punishment for the perpetrator.

Similarly, minorities like the Baha'is and religious converts—individuals who have left Islam and embraced other religions—are also excluded from the rights granted to Muslim citizens.

Minority Property Confiscation

The Islamic government uses property confiscation as a prevalent method to acquire Iranian assets. This practice was initiated shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and is ongoing.

Throughout this process, Iranian society at large has suffered significant losses as their properties were seized.

One notable instance is the confiscation and destruction of the residence belonging to the renowned Iranian singer Hassan Shamaizadeh.

However, religious minorities face additional discrimination, as confiscations extend beyond individual homes and personal belongings to encompass the properties of entire minority communities, including religious sites.

For instance, the Qasr-e Firuzeh cemetery, an endowment of the Zoroastrian community comprising several hundred hectares of land and two canals, was seized during the Iran-Iraq war under the pretext of wartime necessity for defense.

Subsequently, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) occupied the area, erecting barracks and residential settlements and effectively converting it into a military base.

A journalist interviewed by IranWire recounted being warned by military patrols while attempting to photograph parts of the Qasr-e Firuzeh area and ultimately being compelled to delete all images under the supervision of officials.

Ceremonial Freedom under Government Grip

According to the Constitution of the Islamic Republic, official minorities are theoretically granted the freedom to conduct their religious ceremonies.

However, practical implementation reveals instances where the government imposes restrictions on these gatherings.

A recent example highlights the limited celebration of the Zoroastrian centennial by the community in Kerman, which was held only online.

Furthermore, religious minorities encounter obstacles in selecting and constructing venues for their ceremonies, as they are prohibited from establishing new religious buildings.

An illustrative case is a land parcel in the Yousefabad area of Tehran, owned by Iran's Zoroastrian community and known for years as an unfinished project: "Adrian the Greater of Tehran."

Before the revolution, the Tehran Zoroastrian Association had plans to develop this vast tract into a large prayer hall akin to Tehran's fire temple on Mirza Kochak Khan Street.

However, following the revolution, work on the project halted, and despite efforts to revive the initiative, a grand fire temple was never built.

Even when venues for religious ceremonies are available, procuring essential items for these events proves challenging for minority groups.

An individual who faced repercussions from the police and judiciary for alcohol possession recounted to IranWire, on the condition of anonymity: "The judge informed me that as a minority, I was free to conduct my ceremony and consume wine, but transporting and possessing alcohol was prohibited."

When the individual explained the necessity of bringing wine to the venue as it could not be produced on-site, the judge remained silent, ultimately imposing a fine.

Constitutional Rights Violated Under Authority of Fatwas

The constitutional freedom for official minorities to practice their faith has been eroded by a law, Article 881 of the Civil Code, which favors Muslims and was approved based on a fatwa from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

"An infidel does not inherit from a Muslim, and if there is a Muslim among the heirs, the inheritance does not include any of the non-Muslims, regardless of the family relationship," the law says.

Despite efforts by minority representatives in parliament to address this issue, the authority of fatwas has superseded the law.

Challenges to Voting

Members of Iran's official minority groups face a recurring challenge every four years during parliamentary elections: whether to vote or abstain.

Within the broader Iranian society, abstaining from voting is often perceived and promoted as a political statement opposing the ruling system.

Not voting may also threaten minority representation in parliament, excluding their voices in official settings. 

Supporters of voting in minority communities argue that having minority representatives in parliament can address their specific concerns.

However, in practice, there has been little legislative protection for minority rights, except for a few instances during short periods of political openness in the history of the Islamic Republic.



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