These Iranians were persecuted for their religious beliefs

“You are under arrest for being a Christian and evangelizing,” Marziyeh Amirizadeh recalls Iranian authorities saying as they led her and a friend off to Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison in 2009.

Amirizadeh and her friend, Maryam Rostampour, were fortunate to survive: Iran’s penal code specifies the death sentence for people like them who convert to Christianity from Islam. They were both imprisoned for nine months then quickly fled the country before facing trial in a religious court.

“Tell us what we want, or we will beat you,” Rostampour remembers the police telling her. “We were afraid. For all we knew, this was our last day on Earth,” she said, recounting her captivity. The two women describe their ordeal in the book Captive in Iran.

Amirizadeh and her friend are among thousands of Iranians persecuted in Iran because of their religious beliefs. Iran’s constitution, laws and regulations must be “in conformity with Islamic criteria” based on Ja’fari Shia Islam, the official state religion. More than 90 percent of the country’s population are Shia.

Graphic showing symbols of minority religions and estimated numbers of members in Iran (Shutterstock / State Dept.)

Although Iran’s constitution states that it protects the equal rights of “all people of Iran,” the government recognizes three religious minorities: Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians (excluding converts from Islam, like Amirizadeh and Rostampour) who may “exercise their religious ceremonies within the limits of the law.”

Cler Baheri experienced firsthand what that means. In 1981, Iranian authorities raided her family’s home and arrested her father, who was later charged with “waging war against God” and “corruption on earth.” His crime? Being a known leader in the Baha’i community, one of the many religions that Iran does not recognize.

Baheri remembers the day she accompanied her mother and 9-year-old brother to visit her father in prison. “The way he looked at my brother, I knew he was saying goodbye.” Her father was tried in a religious court and executed the following day.

Those who practice the Baha’i religion are banned from all government employment and the government social pension system. They can neither inherit property nor receive compensation for crimes or injury committed against them.

Woman in scarf collecting water in a cup from a cave (© Kuni Takahashi/Getty Images)
Zoroastrians make pilgrimage to the mountain shrine of Chak Chak near Yazd, Iran, to honor Nikbanou, second daughter of the last pre-Islamic Persian ruler. (© Kuni Takahashi/Getty Images)

At least 261 people remained in prison in Iran at the end of 2016 for their association with a minority religion, including at least 115 Sunnis, 80 Baha’is, 26 Christian converts, 18 Sufis and 10 Yarsanis, according to the State Department’s 2016 Report on International Religious Freedom.

Saeid Rezaie, a former leading member of the Baha’is in Iran, for example, was released in February 2018 from prison after serving a 10-year sentence for his religious beliefs (see tweet below). He was among several leaders of Iran’s Baha’i community arrested and convicted of espionage, insulting religious sanctities and propaganda against the Islamic Republic. The U.S. condemned the arrests.

Certain religions banned from higher education

Before fleeing Iran in 1984 at the age of 18, Baheri had applied to Iranian universities. While her test scores were very high, her applications were rejected on the basis of her faith.

Like Baheri, Niknaz Aftahi also was denied access to higher education because she was Baha’i. Instead, she studied at the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education, which the Iranian government considers illegal. The institute’s students and faculty risk imprisonment for their participation at BIHE.

“Some of my colleagues are in jail today just for teaching math, computer science and physics. The faculty risk their lives for the love of teaching a group of Iranian youth deprived of higher education,” said Aftahi, who left Iran in 2010.

Aftahi is now a U.S. citizen, and she teaches an online course at BIHE from her home in California. She worries for her students and colleagues. “The government of Iran is spending a lot of money and energy to deprive its own youth a future. Yet they stay in Iran despite all challenges to contribute to their country.”