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40 Years of Discrimination Against Christians, Jewish People and Zoroastrians

August 13, 2018
Shima Shahrabi
8 min read
Faravahar adorns a Zoroastrian temple in Yazd
Faravahar adorns a Zoroastrian temple in Yazd
A convert to Islam asked Khamenei if his Zoroastrian family would be entitled to any of his father’s inheritance
A convert to Islam asked Khamenei if his Zoroastrian family would be entitled to any of his father’s inheritance
Iranian Jews in a religious ceremony
Iranian Jews in a religious ceremony
Armenian new year ceremonies in an Isfahan church
Armenian new year ceremonies in an Isfahan church
Zoroastrians praying in a temple dug into a mountainside
Zoroastrians praying in a temple dug into a mountainside

Armaiti has hung the Zoroastrian calendar up on the wall so he will not miss nabor, the four days of each month when Zoroastrians do not eat meat and do not slaughter animals. But before even a day has passed, he is summoned by the university’s security office. He is told, in a somewhat respectful tone, “Take down your calendar. This is proselytizing. Why do other people need to know that you are a Zoroastrian?”

Armaiti studies botany at Eghlid University in Shiraz. “They told me in no uncertain terms to avoid doing things that would make others notice my religion,” he tells me. “Otherwise they will expel me, first from the dormitory and then from the university.”

Article 13 of the Islamic Republic constitution states:  “Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian Iranians are the only recognized religious minorities, who, within the limits of the law, are free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies, and to act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education.” But in the last 40 years they have often been the victims of discrimination.

“They consider even small things to be proselytizing,” says Armaiti. “For instance, sometimes they say that a Faravahar medallion is a symbol for proselytizing Zoroastrianism.”

Kourosh Niknam, a former Zoroastrian member of the parliament, was warned by the Public Places Police after he had a Faravahar hung inside his shop. “I used to have a bookshop,” he tells IranWire. “The Faravahar was inside the shop, not above the entrance. But the police summoned us and told us to remove the sign.” According to Niknam, once they even warned the owners of jewelry shops who were not Zoroastrians but sold Faravahar pendants. “I heard that they removed Faravahar pendants from the shops, melted them and returned the gold to the jewelers,” he says.

No Wedding Invitations for Muslims

Armaiti believes that pressure on Zoroastrians has increased in recent years. “Muslims and followers of other religions used to be allowed to join Zoroastrian celebrations like Sadeh [50 days before the spring equinox] and Mehregan [the Autumn Festival], but now they are not permitted to do so,” he says.

Kourosh Niknam agrees. “We have Muslim friends but right now we are not allowed to invite them to our weddings or celebrations,” he says. “Before the wedding, we must sign a commitment that we will not invite non-Zoroastrians.”

He says that the story of Sepanta Niknam brought the pressures on the Zoroastrian community to the public attention. Niknam was the only Zoroastrian who had been elected to Yazd City Council in 2014. In 2017 he was reelected to a second term by 22,000 votes, including many cast by Shia voters. But his defeated rival lodged a complaint with the Court of Administrative Justice, objecting to the election of a Zoroastrian to the local council of a Muslim-majority city. On September 4, 2017, the court temporarily suspended Sepanta Niknam from the council, citing the directive issued by the Guardian Council.

Previously, the Guardian Council had ruled that non-Muslims cannot be elected to the local councils of Muslim-majority cities and villages. The court decision triggered an immediate — mainly negative — response from around the country. Finally, in July 2018, the Expediency Council reinstated Sepanta Niknam.

Fanning the Urge to Convert

Armaiti says that such pressures by the government are actually making many people turn their backs on Islam. “In recent years many of my friends have asked me how they can convert from Islam to Zoroastrianism,” he says.

To become a Zoroastrianism, one is required to participate in an initiation ceremony called Sedreh Pushi, similar to baptism for Christians. People taking part in these ceremonies must wear a white collarless and sleeveless shirt and commit to “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds”, the basic tenets of the Zoroastrian faith. But in Iran, Zoroastrians do not hold these ceremonies for converts in order to protect them from punishment by the government.

Sedreh Pushi is not only for converts. The Zoroastrian religion does not pass from parents to children. The children, if they wish to be Zoroastrians, must take part in these ceremonies when they reach 15. But, says Armaiti, “Zoroastrian temples in Iran are always under surveillance to prevent the holding of Sedreh Pushi ceremonies for non-Zoroastrians.”

Churches under Surveillance

Robert is an Armenian Christian, and he echoes much of what Armaiti says about discrimination. “Many of our Muslim friends ask us about converting to Christianity but in Iran we are not allowed to proselytize,” he says. According to Robert, the official Armenian churches are carefully monitored by security forces to prevent any kind of proselytization.

Maryam is a Christian convert who was baptized in a home-church in the northwestern city of Urmia. “In home-churches they both teach about Christianity and hold prayers and ceremonies like official churches,” she says. “In recent years, holding prayers at home-churches has become very difficult and dangerous. Under the guise of being interested in Christianity, security agents infiltrate home-churches to identify Christian converts and proselytizers.”

According to Maryam, converts are now very cautious about going to home-churches for prayers and ceremonies after many converts were arrested and sentenced to long prison terms. In less than two months in 2017, 11 converts and one priest were sentenced to a total of 125 years in prison.

Robert, however, says that the ban on proselytizing is not the only discrimination minorities face. It extends to many spheres of life. “For example,” he says, “no member of a religious minority can be elected president because, according to Article 115 of the Islamic Republic constitution, the president must be a believer in the official religion of the country — that is, Shi’ism. But this is only one of the most obvious examples. Religious minorities are clearly discriminated against in laws [which prevent them from taking on] government jobs, testimony in court, punishment for murder and so on.”

Members of religious minorities cannot join the armed forces and, according to the 1987 Law of the Islamic Republic Military, this option is reserved only for Muslims. Also, according to the Islamic Penal Code, if the victim of a murder is a Muslim then the murderer is punished by qisas (“retribution”), but if the victim belongs to a religious minority then the murderer has only to pay diya or “blood money.”

What is more, the diya for a murdered Muslim was higher than the blood money for a non-Muslim. But the sixth Islamic Republic Parliament (2000-2004) changed this, and ruled that the diya for both Muslims and non-Muslims must be equal. The Guardian Council, which must approve all laws, rejected this, but the parliamentarians insisted and the Expediency Council overruled the Guardian Council.

Another example of legal discrimination against minorities is testimony in court. Iranian law does not accept the testimony of a non-Muslim against a Muslim — whatever the case.

“An infidel does not get inheritance”

Pouya Dayanim, President of the Iranian Jewish Public Affairs Committee (IJPAC), tells IranWire about other areas of legal discrimination, including inheritance laws. “In inheritance laws, if one child of a minority family converts to Islam he gets all the inheritance and the rest of the family gets nothing,” he says.

Article 881 B of the Civil Code of the Islamic Republic states: “An infidel does not get inheritance from a Muslim and if there are infidels among the heirs of a deceased infidel, the infidel heirs do not take inheritance even if they are prior to the Muslim as concerns class and degree.”

Iran’s official media also discriminates against minority religions on a regular basis. “The magazine Payam-e Daneshjou compared the Jews to monkeys and the weekly Yalasarat al-Hussein, which belongs to Ansar-e Hezbollah, compared them to mice,” says Dayanim. “Movie actor Akbar Abdi praised Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for rubbing the noses of the Jews in the mud.”

Dayanim believes that the government’s anti-Israeli propaganda over the last 40 years has confused people, many of whom now do not distinguish between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism and, as a result, insult Jews.

“Printing books in Hebrew is not permitted in Iran,” says Dayanim. “Most of the Hebrew and Siddur prayer books are from 40 years ago and reprinting them is not allowed. We are also not allowed to bring religious leaders from among foreign academics into Iran. Iran is the only country with a Jewish community that has no rabbi. A rabbi is a graduate of a Jewish university who returns to lead religious ceremonies. Iran has no rabbi because it has no schools for teaching Judaism and rabbis from other countries are not allowed to come to Iran. So a group of religious individuals who have learned the traditions from their parents teach others.”

Dayanim believes that the Islamic Republic’s inheritance laws are designed to encourage members of religious minorities to convert to Islam. “I know a rich Zoroastrian family whose son converted to Islam to get his hands on all his father’s inheritance,” he says. “His mother, sister and brother took him to court and the court ruled in their favor. Then he wrote a letter to Ayatollah Khamenei, asking him: ‘My family is Zoroastrian and I have converted to Islam, so does the family get the inheritance?’ Ayatollah Khamenei answered that if there is a Muslim inheritor then the infidel will not get the inheritance unless they convert to Islam.” 



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