Saturday, 31 October 2009

RFERL: Jundallah: Profile Of A Sunni Extremist Group

By Abubakar Siddique

After the October 18 suicide attack in southeastern Iran that killed at least 42 people, including elite military commanders and tribal elders, the extremist group Jundallah is suddenly at the center of international attention. Jundallah (God's Soldiers) champions the cause of Iran's 1.5 million ethnic Baluchis, who live under severe political and cultural oppression as a Sunni Muslim minority in the predominantly Shi'ite country.

Following the attack, in which five high-ranking officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) were killed, the IRGC's commander accused the United States, Britain, and the Pakistani intelligence services of backing the group, and of protecting its leader, Abdolmalek Rigi.The three countries have condemned the attack and denied backing Jundallah, but Tehran continues to insist that the group had foreign support.

Immediately following the attack, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad demanded that Islamabad help Iran track down and hand over Jundallah members who Tehran believes masterminded the attacks, and who Iranian officials allege are hiding in Pakistan.

"We ask the Pakistani government not to delay any longer in the apprehension of the main elements in this terrorist attack," Ahmadinejad said. "We were informed that some security agents in Pakistan are cooperating with the main elements of this terrorist incident. We regard it as our right to demand these criminals."

Jundallah, which reportedly has been renamed the Iranian Peoples' Resistance Movement, has claimed many high-profile attacks in Iran's southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan Province in recent years.

Experts suggest that the group is a good example of how extremism can develop among the marginalized borderland communities in Southwest Asia, and how militant groups can act as asymmetrical tools in complicated relations among competing regional states.

Nationalism And Religion

Abdol Sattar Doshoki, a Baluchi political activist-turned-analyst in London, says that Jundallah leader Rigi was a "young Sunni religious devotee" who had a falling out with the Iranian government a few years ago and found support among young Baluchi religious zealots in his native region.

Jundallah leader Abdolmalik Rigi is described as a 'Sunni religious devotee.'But his violent movement has also garnered some sympathy from ordinary Baluchis who see their identity as under attack from Iran, and see Jundallah as a defender."Baluch people are being discriminated against on two specific grounds.

No. 1 is their religion. An overwhelming number of Baluchis are Sunni, and the regime is Shi'ite," Doshoki says."The second ground for discrimination is ethnicity. Most of the officials -- or I should say, maybe all of them -- are Persian speaking," in contrast to the Baluchi-speaking minority, Doshoki says. "So this friction and animosity between the regime and the people always existed. And therefore it is a kind of subliminal war going on between the regime and the people.

"Despite living along strategic trade routes atop a wealth of untapped hydrocarbon and mineral deposits, members of Southwest Asia's Baluchi minority have found it difficult to emerge from poverty and repression.More than 8 million members of the beleaguered nation call the Iranian Plateau their home. Their population spans the borders of Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan, with their southern reaches hemmed in by the Arabian Sea.

Some 60 percent are concentrated in Pakistan's southwestern Baluchistan Province, where they seek autonomy and have been in the grips of a violent insurgency -- their fifth in modern history -- since 2004. Their insurrection and most political movements are staunchly secular. But for the 1.5 million Baluchis living in Iran, Doshoki says, the mosque is their only real place of association, leading the causes of Sunni extremism to become mixed with Baluchi ethno-nationalism and separatism in southeastern Iran. In southwestern Afghanistan, 1 million Baluchis and their Hanafi school of jurisprudence are more in keeping with the majority.

Foreign Connection?

Since its emergence in 2003, Jundallah has taken credit for some 10 attacks, including three suicide bombing since last December and the mass kidnappings of Iranian soldiers and civilians. Iran has responded by cracking down hard on Jundallah and its perceived supporters.

Most of those arrested are summarily executed, according to human rights watchdogs. Last year, Pakistan extradited Abdolhamid Rigi, a younger brother of Jundallah's leader, to Iran, where he now awaits execution.Doshoki says that it is difficult to establish who, exactly, supports Jundallah because Tehran has never provided evidence to back its accusations that the group receives support from Washington, London, or Islamabad.Doshoki sees Jundallah as a pawn in a complicated chess game between states in the region. And he points to the strong possibility that Pakistan supports Jundallah in retaliation for alleged Indian financing of Baluchi rebels fighting the Pakistani Army through Iran.

"There is some evidence and some reasons for Iranian to believe that Pakistan is conniving with Jundallah, or at least not being harsh on them," he says. “Pakistan, I think, has got this grievance against Iran that it should not allow the Indian Consulate -- at least in Zahedan [the capital of Iran's Sistan-Baluchistan Province] -- to help the Baluch political activists or even the armed [separatist] groups including Baluchistan Liberation Front," Doshoki adds. "So there are some grievances on both sides.... I think is not very clear, really.
"In recent years Islamabad, Tehran, and New Delhi have been negotiating a nearly 3,000-kilometer gas pipeline linking Pakistan and India to Iranian gas fields. But instability in the Baluchi borderlands threatens the viability of that significant economic project.

Against Tehran

Tahir Muhammad Khan, a human rights activist and analyst who closely follows developments in Pakistan's southwestern Baluchistan Province, tells RFE/RL from the regional capital Quetta that to understand Jundallah, one has to understand the complex relationship of extremist ideologies, cross-border smuggling networks, and the ethnicities and alliances among militant organizations.

While suggesting that most information about Jundallah is based on assertions from Tehran and Islamabad that are impossible to verify, Khan says that Jundallah is an extremist Sunni organization that gets field-level support and guidance from Baluchi ethno-nationalists along the Iran-Pakistan border. And its real mission, he says, is to oppose the Shi'ite clerical regime in Tehran. He suggests that most of Jundallah's cadres are graduates of religious seminaries or madrassahs, and its core members come from the Baluchi Rigi tribe spanning the Iran-Pakistan border.

All these factors have pushed it into alliance with the Taliban in Pakistan and other extremist Sunni factions there. "Organizations, particularly armed organizations, cannot survive without major financing. When they prepare for suicide attacks it requires a lot of finances," Khan says. "So their No. 1 ally is the network led by [former] Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud. The primary goal of this network is killing Shi'a and engaging in Shi'a bashing.

"He says the group's primary motives remain political, while it might be providing protection to smuggling rackets in return for funding. Khan sees very little motive for the Pakistani government to support Jundallah as an instrument of state policy, because "it would never like to mess up its relations with Iran."But he suggests that the Western forces based in Afghanistan might consider the Baluchi borderlands as Tehran's soft underbelly, and might see groups such as Jundallah as leverage to pressure Tehran.

Analysts suggest that the turmoil in this part of the world will rise unless regional states rethink and reconfigure their relations with their own citizens and with their neighborhood.

BBC: Profile: Iran's Jundullah militants

By Roger Hardy BBC Middle East analyst

The Iranian authorities have accused a shadowy group called Jundullah - the Soldiers of God - of carrying out a suicide bombing on 18 October which killed six commanders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. But what is Jundullah, what does it want - and who is behind it?

It was founded in 2002 to defend the Baluchi minority in the poor, remote and lawless region of south-east Iran.

Its leader, Abdolmalek Rigi, denies the group has either foreign links or a separatist agenda.

In an interview in October 2008, he said the group - also known as the People's Resistance Movement - was not interested in trying to break away from Iran.
It simply wanted the state to respect the human rights, culture and faith of the Baluchis.
Nation without a state

The Baluchis in Iran - and their brethren across the border in Pakistan - see themselves, rather like the Kurds, as a nation without a state.

But in predominantly Shia Iran, the issue is complicated by the fact that they are Sunni Muslim.

This has led them to claim sectarian persecution - and the Iranian authorities to accuse them of bring in league with foreigners.

The list of powers alleged to be supporting them is a long one.
It includes the United States, Britain, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia - and militant groups such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

During the Bush administration, there were allegations - for example, by the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh - that the CIA was supporting Iran's Baluchi, Kurdish and Arab minorities to undermine the Islamic Republic.
If there was such a policy, it is not clear if the Obama administration has scrapped it.

It was quick to condemn Sunday's attack as an "act of terrorism".
An al-Qaeda link?
The Iranians also suspect covert support for Jundullah is coming from Pakistan's powerful intelligence service, the ISI.
But the two states have in the past co-operated in suppressing Baluchi nationalism - and also have important economic ties - so it seems unlikely Pakistan would want to antagonise its powerful neighbour.
As for the Saudis, given their resentment of Iran's newly enhanced role in the Middle East, it is not impossible some quiet assistance is going to Sunni groups like Jundullah.
Less plausible is a link to al-Qaeda.
Although Jundullah has recently adopted the jihadi tactic of suicide bombings, it seems more accurate to characterise it is a nationalist group with local grievances than part of Bin Laden's global jihad.

Reuters: INTERVIEW-Drug smuggling helped rise of Jundollah militants

LONDON, Oct 22 (Reuters) - The rise of the Jundollah militant group, blamed for Sunday's suicide attack in Iran, coincided with an explosion in drug smuggling from which it earns much of its funding, a leading Western expert said.

Iran says Jundollah, which it blamed for Sunday's attack that killed 15 Revolutionary Guards and 27 others in Sistan-Baluchestan province, has bases in neighbouring Pakistan.It also accused Britain and the United States of involvement in the attack, charges they deny.

"The emergence and rise of Jundollah coincide with the explosion of smuggling throughout the eastern edge of Iran," said French historian Stephane Dudoignon, a leading Western expert on Sistan-Baluchestan.The rise in smuggling after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 had particularly affected the impoverished region, he said in an e-mail interview.Sistan-Baluchestan had also suffered an exceptionally long drought since 2001, and had seen the return of many Baluch fighters who had been affiliated to the Taliban.

"An organisation that is probably mostly independent, with a completely different discourse to that of al Qaeda and the Taliban, Jundollah very probably relies on revenue from smuggling and obtains its arms supplies from attacks on Iranian garrisons," he said.The group is believed to operate along the porous borders between Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, analysts say.
The Afghan Taliban earn much of their funding from smuggling opium.Jundollah, Dudoignon said, drew its religious ideology from Deobandi Islam, a traditionalist Sunni school of thought which emerged in British India in the 19th century and has since spread across Pakistan and Afghanistan.Analysts say its use of suicide bombings suggest it is increasingly influenced by the sectarian anti-Shi'ite agenda of some militant groups in Pakistan which also follow a Deobandi tradition -- as do the Afghan Taliban. [ID:nLK487913].


As a result, its agenda in Shi'ite Iran is quite different from the ethnic Baluch separatist goals on the Pakistan side of the border. The Deobandi tradition stresses religious over ethnic identity."This (Deobandi) ideology, strongly hostile to ethnic separatism, is oriented toward the promotion of full and complete citizenship for the Sunnis of Iran, especially the Baluch, by means of the proclamation of a federal state," Dudoignon said.He said it was hard to assess Jundollah's links with other militant groups, beyond noting it had moved towards new forms of violence, including suicide bombings, "which make one think of practices more common, at least for the last few years, in Iraq or Pakistan.

"Asked whether Jundollah had any links with al Qaeda, he said this "is the great unknown".But the question had been raised many times before, he said, to which Jundollah leader Abdolmalik Rigi had always responded by arguing that he was a Baluch and Iranian patriot."So from an ideological point of view, this is far from the Islamic internationalism of al Qaeda," he said.

The future strength of Jundollah would depend on Iran's policy towards minority Sunnis living around the periphery of the country's Shi'ite Persian heartland.The Sunni community, he said, "has structured itself strongly in the last 30 years of the Islamic Republic to the point where it constitutes a weighty challenge to the regime." (Writing by Myra MacDonald; editing by Janet McBride)

AP: Iran's Sunni militants carve secretive path


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Seven years ago, a little-known group called Jundallah emerged in Iran with claims to fight for the rights of minority Sunnis in the unruly tribal areas near the border with Pakistan.

But just last week, Iranian leaders say, this shadowy group with reported connections to countries as diverse as the U.S., Pakistan and Saudi Arabia delivered a devastating attack on Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard. The Oct. 18 suicide bombing in an Iranian border village killed at least 42 people, including top Revolutionary Guard commanders.

The bombing suggests that ambitions by Jundallah — the Soldiers of God — have risen, and that the group is moving toward a wider uprising. Jundallah's attack on a Shiite mosque in May and recent use of suicide bombers could point to the growing influence of militant Islamic groups seeking a Sunni revolt against Shiite control in Iran, experts say.

Recent Jundallah attacks "express a clear will for a definitive rupture with the regime in Tehran," said Stephane Dudoignon, a Paris-based researcher who specializes in the Baluchi region. "It seems to be announcing an unprecedented escalation of violence in the months and years to come."

Last week's bombing also shows how Jundallah has become a magnet for theories and suspicions. Immediately after the attack, leaders in Tehran drew a far-reaching web of accusations linking Jundallah to supporters in Pakistan, Britain and the United States. All three nations quickly rejected the claims.
The rumblings — never clearly confirmed or debunked — span from covert U.S. aid, to indoctrination by Islamic radicals to links to smuggling networks. Reports by regional experts and interviews with security officials, including a former military chief in Pakistan, suggest Jundallah has benefited from U.S. and Pakistani help and, more recently, may have drifted closer to anti-Shiite militants with links to Saudi Arabia.

The claims of Jundallah's outside contacts could not be independently verified. They lend support, however, to long-standing speculation of U.S. and Pakistani encouragement to the group in efforts to rattle Iranian authorities with a low-level rebellion.

Gen. Aslam Beg, a former army chief of staff in Pakistan, told The Associated Press that the border village of Mand has been used as a staging point for U.S. contacts with Jundallah. U.S. aid also was funneled into the region through the Pakistani ports of Kot Kalmat and Jiwani, he alleged.

Beg, who left military service in the early 1990s, gave no other details or definitive timeline on the alleged U.S. links to Jundallah, which operates in one of the most inaccessible areas in the region.

In an article for, former CIA field officer Robert Baer wrote that the CIA had "sporadic" contact with Jundallah, but it was largely restricted to intelligence.
"A relationship with Jundallah was never formalized," Baer wrote.

An officer with Pakistan's paramilitary Frontier Corps, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, said he could shed no light on Beg's claims. But he added that Pakistan would never allow its territory to be used for attacks against a neighbor.

Officials in Washington and London also reject any links. Shortly after the suicide bombing, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly called claims of U.S. involvement "completely false."

Yet Washington has been less clear on how it views Jundallah. The group has not been placed on any terrorist watch list or designation. Instead, it's been described in various U.S. reports as an "opposition group" or "militant" faction.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal administration deliberations, said a decision on Jundallah could come soon, but declined to elaborate. Options include designating Jundallah a "Foreign Terrorist Organization" or placing it to one of several other terrorism blacklists.
Britain, too, denies any ties and has condemned Jundallah attacks. "They had nothing to do with the U.K.," Britain's Foreign Office said in a statement.

Experts estimate Jundallah has between 250 and 1,000 fighters. They are believed bankrolled by kidnapping-for-ransom plots and smuggling goods, such as subsidized Iranian fuel, into fellow Baluchi tribal areas in Pakistan and southern Afghanistan.

Jundallah's statements in the past have called for greater rights and prosperity for Iran's Baluchi region, which is inaccessible to journalists. But a July report by the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment cites indications that Jundallah has been building ties to Pakistani militant groups, including Lashkar-e-Janghvi and Tehrik-e-Taliban.

Both groups are battling Pakistan's military offensive into its northwestern Waziristan region.

"The story of Jundallah is the story of how an ethnic resistance movement has transformed into a violent sectarian group adopting tactical and ideological elements from the global jihadi movement," said the report.

After last week's suicide blast, Iran sent Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar to Islamabad to press Iran's claims that Pakistan allows Jundallah to operate on its territory — a charge Pakistan denied.

The two countries agreed to set up a joint border monitoring unit. But tensions quickly returned after Pakistan on Monday detained 11 Iranian agents who crossed the rugged border in apparent pursuit of smugglers. Authorities first identified them as Revolutionary Guard members, but then altered the statement to call them only security officers.

Although Pakistan and Iran have pledged cooperation to crack down on Jundallah, the two nations have been deeply at odds on other regional issues.

Pakistan was among the main international backers of Afghanistan's Taliban, which was fiercely opposed by Tehran. Iran even backed the U.S.-aided Northern Alliance that helped topple the Taliban after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Jundallah's rise could be an outgrowth of other tensions between the two nations.

A former police official familiar with the region said the government of former President Gen. Pervez Musharraf gave Jundallah space to operate in 2003 and 2004. It came after Iran contributed intelligence that linked Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan to an international smuggling ring providing nuclear material and technology.
Speaking on condition of anonymity because he feared retribution from Pakistani intelligence, the official said that Musharraf also opened the floodgates to money from Saudi Arabia. The funds were used to build madrassas, or religious schools, in the Baluchi area and elsewhere espousing the austere Deobandi sect of Sunni Islam, the official said.

Pakistan's top Interior Ministry official, Rehman Malik, said Jundallah leader Abdulmalik Rigi was hiding in Afghanistan.

Yet Rigi has given several interviews from Pakistan this year, including one to Al-Arabiya television, claiming it trains its fighters in camps outside Iran. Rigi did not specifically name Pakistan, but most experts believe there are substantial cross-border ties.

"We train 20, 30 or 50 men every month and then send them in. So far we have trained over 2,000 men," Rigi told Al-Arabiya in September. "We're an Islamic Awakening movement. ... We suffer economic problems and very meager resources."

On both sides of the border, ethnic Baluchis are among the poorest and least educated, according to U.N. statistics.

"Apart from the narcotics trafficking, I don't know what they do there," said Christine Fair, regional expert at the RAND Corp.

Associated Press writers Brian Murphy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Paisley Dodds in London and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

VOA: Religious Liberty Violated In Iran

The continuing imprisonment of 7 leaders of Iran's Baha'i community falsely accused of capital crimes, as well as the incarceration of 2 Iranian Christian women who also lack adequate medical care, are 2 of the many cases that contribute to Iran's being regarded by the U.S. as one of the world's worst violators of religious liberty.

According to the State Department's annual International Religious Freedom Report, Iran shares that status with 7 other countries: North Korea, Burma, China, Sudan, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan.

The report notes that in Iran over the past year, "respect for religious freedom ... continued to deteriorate. Government rhetoric and actions created a threatening atmosphere for nearly all non-Shi'a religious groups, most notably for Baha'is, evangelical Christians, and members of the Jewish community. Reports of government imprisonment, harassment, intimidation, and discrimination based on religious beliefs continued over the reporting period.

"Shi'a leaders who differed from the government's view that clerics should play a leading role in politics were also harassed and subject to investigation by Special Clerical Courts, which are not provided for in Iran's constitution, and operate outside the judiciary.

In remarks introducing this year's International Religious Freedom Report, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointed out that the right to profess, practice, and promote one's religious beliefs is one of America's most important founding principles, one which provides a cornerstone for every healthy society:

"It is the first liberty mentioned in our Bill of Rights, and it is a freedom guaranteed to all people in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. I want to underscore that, because this is not just an American value. This was agreed to be a universal value."

Iran has ratified both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It is time the Iranian government live up to its international obligations and support the right of each individual, to, in Secretary of State Clinton's words, "believe or not believe, as that individual sees fit."

Time: Iran's Biggest Worry: Growing Ethnic Conflict

The Iranian regime has a problem, and it's not a velvet revolution or Israel's threat to bomb its nuclear facilities. No, what really keeps the mullahs up at night is the specter of ethnic and sectarian conflict — more attacks like the bombing on Oct. 18 in the remote southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchistan, which killed 42 people, including five senior officers of the Revolutionary Guards Corps. The country's leaders cannot help but worry that the same divisions ripping apart Afghanistan and Pakistan are about to visit them.

Tehran immediately blamed outsiders — the U.S., Great Britain and Pakistan — for Sunday's suicide bombing because it cannot admit that it has its own homegrown Taliban. Whatever Iran says about Jundallah, the ethnic Baluch group that claimed responsibility for the attack, it's an indigenous movement. The body of its financing comes from Baluch expatriates, many in the Gulf, and Islamic charities. Its weapons and explosives are readily available in the mountains that span the border between Iran and Pakistan. (Read "Pakistan: Behind the Waziristan Offensive.")

Pakistani intelligence has indeed had contact with Jundallah over the years, but there's no good evidence that Pakistan created Jundallah from scratch. And there's certainly no evidence that Pakistan ordered the attack. In fact, Pakistani intelligence over the past few years has been arresting Jundallah members and turning them over to Iran.

American intelligence has also had contact with Jundallah. But that contact, as Iran almost certainly knows, was confined to intelligence-gathering on the country; a relationship with Jundallah was never formalized, and contact was sporadic. I've been told that the Bush Administration at one point considered Jundallah as a piece in a covert-action campaign against Iran, but the idea was quickly dropped because Jundallah was judged uncontrollable and too close to al-Qaeda. There was no way to be certain that Jundallah would not throw the bombs we paid for back at us. (See TIME's photo-essay "On the Front Lines in the Battle Against the Taliban.")

For Iran, the hard truth is that ethnic Persians make up only 51% of the population. The rest of the country is a mishmash of ethnic minorities, various religions, Muslim sects and semi-nomadic tribes. None has been entirely happy living under the mullahs' Shi'ite theocracy, especially Iran's Sunni citizens, which make up 9% of the population and include most of the Baluch. Iran's minorities have been susceptible to outside influences, but rarely have they felt strong enough to take on Tehran — which fears that that could change with the chaos at its borders. If, for instance, the U.S. were to suddenly pick up and leave Afghanistan, would the new Taliban government resist backing Jundallah? Or if Pakistan fails to subdue the tribal areas and its own Taliban, would this encourage Jundallah?

Tehran is obviously worried that it has a problem with or without a failure in Pakistan or Afghanistan. The five senior Revolutionary Guards officers killed on Sunday were on their way to a meeting with local tribal chiefs to talk about containing Shi'ite-Sunni violence in their province, and the agenda no doubt included what to do about Jundallah.
In that sense, ironically, Tehran is right that its security really does rest with Pakistan and the U.S. A catastrophic failure on their parts would create a threat that would take Iran many years to overcome.

Baer, a former Middle East CIA field officer, is's intelligence columnist and the author of See No Evil and, most recently, The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Council on Foreign Relations: Iran’s Ethnic Groups

Author: Lionel Beehner

Although Iran’s state religion is Shiite Islam and the majority of its population is ethnically Persian, millions of minorities from various ethnic, religious, and linguistic backgrounds also reside in Iran. Among these groups are ethnic Kurds, Baluchis, and Azeris. Many of them face discrimination and live in underdeveloped regions. Though they have held protests in the past, they mostly agitate for greater rights, not greater autonomy. Most are integrated into Iranian society, participate in politics, and identify with the Iranian nation. Tehran occasionally criticizes the United States and Israel for stirring up trouble among its large ethnic groups but the extent of outside involvement with these groups is not clear.

What are Iran’s predominant minority groups?

Iran has small pockets of Baha’i, Turkmen, Christian, and Jewish communities, but its primary ethnic minorities are:

Azeris. Roughly one out of every four Iranians is Azeri, making it Iran’s largest ethnic minority at over eighteen million (some Azeris put the number higher). The Turkic-speaking Azeri community is Shiite and resides mainly in northwest Iran along the border with Azerbaijan (whose inhabitants are more secular than their Azeri cousins in Iran) and in Tehran. Although they have grievances with the current regime in Tehran, most Azeris say they are not treated as second-class citizens and are more integrated into Iranian society, business, and politics (the Supreme Leader is an ethnic Azeri) than other minorities. A common complaint among Azeris is they are often poked fun at by the Iranian media. Last May, violent demonstrations broke out in a number of northwest cities after a cartoon published in a state-run newspaper compared Azeris to cockroaches.

Kurds. Predominantly Sunni, the Kurds reside mainly in the northwest part of the country—so-called Iranian Kurdistan—and comprise around 7 percent of Iran’s population (there are roughly four million Kurds living in Iran, compared to twelve million in Turkey and six million in Iraq). Unlike Iran’s other minorities, many of its Kurds harbor separatist tendencies, creating tensions with the state that have occasionally turned violent (the largest in recent years occurred in response to Turkey’s February 1999 arrest of Abdullah Ocalan, then-leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party). The governments of Turkey and Iran fear the creation of a semiautonomous state in northern Iraq might motivate their own Kurdish minorities to press for greater independence. But Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, a U.S.-based expert on Iranian foreign policy, says Iran’s concern about Kurdish separatism does not approach the level of Turkey’s. Still, there have been repeated clashes between Kurds and Iranian security forces, the most recent of which was sparked by the July 2005 shooting of a young Kurd. Some experts say Israel has increased its ties with Iranian Kurds and boosted intelligence-gathering operations in northwest Iran to exploit ethnic fissures between the
Kurds and the majority Shiite Persians.

Arabs. Along the Iranian-Iraqi border in southwest Iran is a population of some three million Arabs, predominantly Shiite. Arabs, whose presence in Iran stretches back twelve centuries, commingle freely with the local populations of Turks and Persians. During the 1980s, they fought on the side of the Iranians, not the Iraqi Arabs. However, as Sunni-Shiite tensions have worsened in the region, a minority of this group, emboldened by Iraqi Arabs across the border, has pressed for greater autonomy in recent years. In the southern oil-rich province of Khuzestan, clashes erupted in March 2006 between police and pro-independence ethnic Arab Iranians, resulting in three deaths and over 250 arrests (the protests were reportedly organized by a London-based group called the Popular Democratic Front of Ahwazi Arabs). In April 2005, rumors spread that the authorities in Tehran planned to disperse of the area’s Arabs, leading to protests that turned violent, according to Human Rights Watch.

Baluchis. Iran has roughly 1.4 million Baluchis, comprising 2 percent of its population. Predominantly Sunni, they reside in Baluchistan, a region divided between Pakistan and Iran. The southeastern province where Baluchis reside remains the least developed part of Iran and boasts high unemployment rates. That, plus the porous border between the two countries, has encouraged widespread smuggling of various goods, including drugs. Iranian Baluchistan, despite holding few resources, remains an important region militarily because of its border with Pakistan. Earlier this year the Iranian government built a military base there. Tehran has kept a watchful eye on Baluchi militants in the region. In March, a group called Jundallah attacked a government motorcade (which left twenty people dead), kidnapped a number of hostages, and executed at least one member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

What are these groups’ grievances with the Iranian government?

Although the Iranian constitution guarantees the rights of its religious and ethnic minorities, many of these groups say they face discrimination. They say some schools do not teach their languages (as the constitution requires), they are denied government jobs, and their regions are neglected by the state, resulting in above-average unemployment. A February 2006 Amnesty International report points to land and property confiscations, restrictions on movement, and unlawful imprisonments of ethnic minorities. Iran’s Sunni population, which includes Kurds and Baluchis, complain there is not a single Sunni mosque in the country (the authorities reportedly blocked one from recently being built in Tehran) and the government has barred public displays of Sunni religion and culture.

How has the Iranian government responded to ethnic unrest?
In general, the authorities in Tehran downplay differences and grievances among Iran ’s ethnic groups. But most experts and rights monitors say the state marginalizes its minorities, puts down demonstrations with force, and extracts public confessions from those it suspects of initiating unrest, executing those ethnic minorities found guilty. A. William Samii, regional analysis coordinator at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, writes in the Christian Science Monitor that the typical government response is “a combination of repression and scapegoating.” In 1981, for instance, an Azeri uprising in the northwest city of Tabriz was put down violently, resulting in the executions of dozens of Azeris. More recent demonstrations by Arabs in the southwest province of Khuzestan have been blamed on the British, Samii says, because of their military presence across the border in Iraq and the historical role of British oil companies like Shell in the region (90 percent of Iran’s oil is located in Khuzestan).

What role does the United States play with these groups?
There are mixed accounts about U.S. affiliations with such groups. Seymour M. Hersh reports in the New Yorker the Pentagon has established “covert relationships” with many of Iran’s minority groups and “has encouraged their efforts to undermine the regime’s authority in northern and southeastern Iran.” Although many of these minority groups have satellite offices in the United States (as well as in Europe), some experts remain doubtful. Although the Pentagon and Kurds in the region have longstanding ties, Afrasiabi doubts the United States will assist the Kurdish desire for greater autonomy.
“The Iranians believe the United States is not foolish enough to push this arc of Kurdish separatism in Iran too far because of the compounding effect this would have on regional security issues,” he says. But whenever demonstrations break out among Iran’s minorities, Tehran blames foreign agitators, says RFE/RL’s Samii. “In the May 19 Friday Prayers sermon in Tehran, which was broadcast across the country by state radio, Ayatollah Mohammad Emami-Kashani pinned southeastern [Baluchi] violence on the United States and Israel.”

AINA: Marathon in Brussels Calls Attention to Assyrian Persecution

Brussels (AINA) -- Assyrians ran a marathon in Brussels under the slogan "Assyrians to go the Distance." The marathon took place on Sunday, October 4. Nearly 70,000 people participated in the event. The vast majority of the 10,000 runners were Assyrian.

The theme for this year's marathon was the future of the Assyrian people.
The situation of Assyrians in the Middle East is precarious. Assyrians are killed almost every day in Iraq. Many of them are forced to leave their homes in fear of their safety, thus leaving their homeland under very difficult circumstances.

Those who have to leave their country continue living in refugee camps.
Turkey, Syria, Iran and especially Iraq do not recognize national rights for the Assyrians. Particularly, the constitutions of some of these countries do not recognize the national rights of the Assyrian people. Therefore Assyrians are either forced or encouraged to leave their own countries in which they have lived for millennia.

The persecution of the Assyrians in the Middle East continues. Reports are received on a daily basis. Yesterday the body of Imad Elia, a kidnapped Assyrian health worker, was discovered in Kirkuk, Iraq. The body showed signs of torture and mutilation (AINA 10-5-2009).

In order to call attention to Assyrian issues, the Assyrian Genocide Research Center (Seyfo Center) together with the Assyrian Youth Federations of Europe have organized marathons in the past years in Netherlands and other European states. This year the marathon ran in Brussels. The marathon took place amongst thousands of runners and drew a large crowd of spectators.
Assyrians live in the U.S., Canada, Australia and Europe as well as in the Middle East. The organizers of the marathon hope to rally the Assyrian Diaspora in support of Assyrians in the Middle East, who have suffered extreme persecution since 2003, particularly in Iraq (
Sabri Atman of Seyfo Center contributed to this report

Los Angeles Times: IRAN: Grim fates for prisoners with ties to foreigners

October 29, 2009

No mercy for those accused of trying to topple the Islamic Republic.

Britain on Thursday protested a four-year jail sentence apparently imposed on one of its senior employees at its embassy in Tehran accused of spying and fomenting violence.

Hossein Rassam, 44, who served as chief political analyst at the British Embassy in Tehran was sentenced in a closed courtroom earlier this week, according to The Times of London.

British authorities were informed of the sentence Tuesday and have summoned the Iranian ambassador while Britain’s ambassador to Iran has filed a complaint with Iranian authorities. The outcome of the trial has yet to be officially announced.

In other developments, an Iranian human rights group is claiming that judiciary officials in Iran refuse to let a lawyer file an appeal on behalf of Kian Tajbakhsh, an Iranian American scholar sentenced to 15 years in jail for allegedly stirring up trouble during recent protests.

And a vacation video (above) said to “prove the innocence” of three American hikers detained in Iran since the summer has been released online.

Not all the news is grim. Iranian authorities recently released Maziar Bahari, a Newsweek reporter and Iranian Canadian who was arrested in the post-election unrest.

The reports of Rassam’s sentence and the refusal of Tajbakhsh’s appeal surfaced as Britain, the U.S. and other major powers considered Iran’s reply to a proposed deal by the United Nations' atomic watchdog intended to ease international tension over its controversial nuclear program.

The Rassam case has angered the Brits. Foreign secretary David Miliband referred to the court decision in a statement as “deeply concerning” and “wholly unjustified."

Rassam’s sentence, said Miliband, illustrated "further harassment of embassy staff for going about their normal and legitimate duties."

Rassam was arrested June 27 along with eight other local employees of the British Embassy amid the public unrest and protests that erupted after Iran’s disputed June 12 presidential election. At that time, the group was supposedly accused of participating in the riots that began after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed victory in the election.

The other eight were released after some time but Rassam was put on trial along with an employee at the French Embassy and French researcher Clothilde Reiss.

The three were tried in a mass trial of more than 100 people rounded up during the post-election fallout, accused of seeking to bring down the government. Opposition leaders slammed the proceedings as “show trials.”

Rassam is currently out on bail after his release from Teheran’s Evin prison in August. It was not known whether he will remain free pending his appeal or will have to return to prison immediately.

Non-Iranian reporters have not been allowed to attend any of Rassam’s court hearings but the state news agency said Rassam had told the court that 300,000 British pounds, or about $500,000, had been budgeted to set up contacts with political groups prior to the Iranian presidential election, including the main reformist opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi.

Ties between Britain and Iran have grown increasingly tense since the disputed vote and subsequent fallout.

Miliband urged Iranian authorities in his statement to overturn Rassam’s sentence, which he said constituted an “attack against the entire diplomatic community in Iran."

He warned of gloomy consequences for Iran from countries other than Britain should the sentence not be overruled.

Rassam, a father of one, has worked at the embassy since 2004.

Tajbakhsh, an urban planner who holds a doctorate from Columbia University, was arrested and taken into custody in the wake of the post-election protests. He was once a consultant for the American non-profit organization, The Open Society Institute, which his indictment described as a “CIA satellite institution."

Among other charges, Tajbakhsh was found guilty of “acting against national security,” “spying and connections with foreign elements against the sacred system of the Islamic Republic” and “causing lack of public trust toward the official national organs and the ruling system by instigating rioting, mayhem, fear and terror within the society," according to a statement issued by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

According to Iranian law Tajbakhsh has 20 days to appeal, but the rights group claims that Iranian judiciary officials have rejected multiple attempts by Tajbakhsh’s lawyer to file an appeal in what the group calls a “blatantly illegal act."

When Tajbakhsh’s lawyer protested to judiciary officials, he was said to have been told: "It's our law, so we can do what we want with it.”

The scholar has spent the months since his July arrest in Tehran’s Evin prison. He was previously kept in solitary confinement but was recently transferred to a villa on the prison compound, where he lived with a number of other high-profile detainees including a former vice president, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, according to the New York Times.

Tajbakhsh is now said to be back in solitary confinement.

Iran-hikers Supporters of the three hikers caught by Iranian authorities along the Iraqi border have gone all out to try to secure their release. Two video clips, shot by a fourth hiker who was not arrested, depict the hikers singing and showing off some dance moves in Iraqi Kurdistan before they were arrested by Iranian authorities for allegedly trying to cross the border illegally.

"If ever there was even the slightest doubt that we were in Iraqi Kurdistan to relax and have fun, this should surely remove it," Shon Meckfessel, the fourth hiker who was not with the group at their arrest, told Agence France Presse.

Relatives of the hikers said they were walking in the border area between Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan while on holiday July 31.

Iran, however, says it harbors suspicions about the activities and intentions of the Americans in the area.

Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

AP: Pope seeks more freedom for Catholics in Iran

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI urged Iranian authorities on Thursday to let Catholics have the priests and churches they need to freely practice their faith in the country.

In comments to Iran's new ambassador to the Holy See, Benedict also urged Tehran to improve the situation of all Christian minorities so they are better integrated into society.

Human rights reports and Western governments say Christians in Iran, like other minorities including Jews and Zoroastrians, suffer arrests as well as discrimination by being kept out of some jobs. The United States has labeled Iran a country of particular concern for abuse of religious worshippers.

Benedict didn't mention international concerns over Iran's nuclear ambitions in a speech accepting Ambassador Ali Akbar Naseri's credentials. But the ambassador referred to the issue, saying Tehran fully respected international norms but protested efforts to block its right to pursue a nuclear program for peaceful purposes.

The ambassador also complained to the pope about what he said was the increasing spread of "Islamophobia" in the West and boasted that Iran's presidential elections — sharply criticized internationally — showed that it embraced the principles of democracy.

Iran and the Holy See have had diplomatic relations for more than 50 years.

Before the 1979 Islamic revolution there were some 300,000 Catholics in Iran. By 2005, emigration had reduced their numbers to around 25,000, divided among the Chaldean, Armenian and Latin churches, the ANSA news agency said.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

FCO: Embassy employee in Iran sentenced to 4 years

28 Oct 2009

David Miliband expressed deep concern following reports that Hossein Rassam has been sentenced to four years in prison following his arrest in June.

Hossein Rassam, who is a political advisor at the embassy, was arrested following the disputed Presidential elections in Iran in June 2009.
In a statement, David Miliband said:

'Reports that Hossein Rassam has been sentenced to four years in prison are deeply concerning. Such a decision is wholly unjustified and represents further harassment of Embassy staff for going about their normal and legitimate duties.

Our Ambassador in Tehran has spoken to the Deputy Foreign Minister to express our concerns and our acting Permanent Under Secretary has called in the Iranian Ambassador in London. We understand the sentence can be appealed. I urge the authorities to conduct this quickly and overturn this harsh sentence. We are in close touch with EU and other international partners, who continue to show solidarity in the face of this unacceptable Iranian action. This will be seen as an attack against the entire diplomatic community in Iran and important principles are at stake.'

French Foreign Ministry have also condemned the sentencing. A spokesperson said:

'We note with great concern the sentencing of Hossein Rassam, an employee of the British Embassy in Tehran and we express our full solidarity with the UK. We consider any action taken against a member state of the EU, whether a citizen or employee, to be an action against the EU as a whole.

France considers the sentencing of Hossein Rassam to be unjustified. France strongly recommends that appeals to this sentence should be considered without delay in order that the sentence be changed. Furthermore, France expects the Iranian justice system to confirm the innocence of Clotilde Reisse, along with the other locally employed staff of the French and British embassies.

'An EU Presidency statement also expressed "deep concern" for Hossein Rassam and said the sentence was "unjustified and harsh".

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

US Department of State: International Religious Freedom Report 2009

U.S. Department of State


Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

October 26, 2009

The Constitution states that Islam is the official state religion, and the doctrine followed is that of Ja'afari (Twelver) Shi'ism. The Constitution provides that "other Islamic denominations are to be accorded full respect," while the country's pre-Islamic religious groups--Zoroastrians, Christians, and Jews--are recognized as "protected" religious minorities. However, Article 4 of the Constitution states that all laws and regulations must be based on Islamic criteria. In practice, the Government severely restricted freedom of religion.

During the reporting period, respect for religious freedom in the country continued to deteriorate. Government rhetoric and actions created a threatening atmosphere for nearly all non-Shi'a religious groups, most notably for Baha'is, as well as Sufi Muslims, evangelical Christians, and members of the Jewish community. Reports of government imprisonment, harassment, intimidation, and discrimination based on religious beliefs continued during the reporting period. Baha'i religious groups reported arbitrary arrest and prolonged detention, expulsions from universities, and confiscation of property. Government-controlled broadcast and print media intensified negative campaigns against religious minorities, particularly the Baha'is, during the reporting period. All non-Shi'a religious minorities suffered varying degrees of officially sanctioned discrimination, particularly in the areas of employment, education, and housing.

Although the Constitution gives Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians the status of "protected" religious minorities, in practice non-Shi'a Muslims faced substantial societal discrimination, and government actions continued to support elements of society who created a threatening atmosphere for some religious minorities.

The U.S. Government makes clear its strong objections to the Government's harsh and oppressive treatment of religious minorities through public statements, support for relevant U.N. and nongovernmental organization (NGO) efforts, as well as diplomatic initiatives. Every year since 1999, the U.S. Secretary of State has designated the country as a "Country of Particular Concern" (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act for its particularly egregious violations of religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has an area of 631,000 square miles and a population of 70 million. The population is 98 percent Muslim--89 percent is Shi'a and 9 percent Sunni (mostly Turkmen and Arabs, Baluchs, and Kurds living in the southwest, southeast, and northwest respectively). There are no official statistics available on the size of the Sufi Muslim population; however, some reports estimate between two and five million persons practice Sufism in the country. Non-Muslims are estimated to account for 2 percent of the population.

Recent unofficial estimates from religious organizations claim that Baha'is, Jews, Christians, Sabean-Mandaeans, and Zoroastrians constitute 2 percent of the population. The largest non-Muslim minority is the Baha'is, who number 300,000 to 350,000. Unofficial estimates of the Jewish community's size vary from 20,000 to 25,000.

According to U.N. figures, 300,000 Christians live in the country, the majority of whom are ethnic Armenians. Unofficial estimates for the Assyrian Christian population range between 10,000 and 20,000. There are also Protestant denominations, including evangelical religious groups. Christian groups outside the country estimate the size of the Protestant Christian community to be less than 10,000, although many Protestant Christians reportedly practice in secret. Sabean-Mandaeans number 5,000 to 10,000 persons. The Government regards the Sabean-Mandaeans as Christians, and they are included among the three recognized religious minorities; however, Sabean-Mandaeans do not consider themselves Christians. The Government estimates there are 30,000 to 35,000 Zoroastrians, a primarily ethnic Persian minority; however, Zoroastrian groups claim to have 60,000 adherents. There are indications that members of all religious minorities are emigrating at a high rate, although it is unclear if the reasons for emigration are religious or related to overall poor economic conditions.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution declares the "official religion of Iran is Islam and the doctrine followed is that of Ja'afari (Twelver) Shi'ism." All laws and regulations must be consistent with the official interpretation of Shari'a (Islamic law). The Constitution provides Sunni Muslims a degree of religious freedom; however, the Government severely restricts overall religious freedom. The Constitution states that "within the limits of the law," Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians are the only recognized religious minorities who are guaranteed freedom to practice their religious beliefs. However, members of these recognized minority religious groups reported government imprisonment, harassment, intimidation, and discrimination based on their religious beliefs.

The Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i, heads a tricameral structure of government (legislative, executive, and judicial branches). The Supreme Leader is not directly elected, but chosen by a group of 86 Islamic scholars (the Assembly of Experts), who are directly elected. All acts of the Majles (Parliament) must be reviewed for strict conformity with Islamic law and the Constitution, and all candidates for any elected office must be vetted by the unelected Council of Guardians, which is composed of six clerics, appointed by the Supreme Leader, and six Muslim jurists (legal scholars), nominated by the head of the judiciary and approved by the Majles.

The Government observes 14 religious holidays as national holidays, including Eid-e-Ghadir, Tassoua, Ashura, Arbaeen, Death of the Prophet Muhammad, Martyrdom of Imam Reza, Birthday of Imam Ali, Ascension of the Prophet Muhammad, Birthday of Imam Mahdi, Eid-e-Fitr, Martyrdom of Imam Ali, Martyrdom of Imam Jafar Sadegh, Eid-e-Ghorban, and the Islamic New Year.
The Government does not respect the right of Muslim citizens to change or renounce their religious faith. A child born to a Muslim father automatically is considered a Muslim by the Government.

Non-Muslims may not engage in public religious expression, persuasion, and conversion among Muslims, and there are restrictions on published religious material. In February 2008, a revision to the Penal Code was drafted for approval by the legislature whereby apostasy, specifically conversion from Islam, would be punishable by death. This revision passed in the Majles in September 2008 and was reportedly implemented on a 1-year trial basis. On June 23, 2009, the Legal and Judicial Committee of the Majles recommended removing the revision from the Penal Code, but no further information was available at the end of the reporting period. Previously, death sentences for apostasy have been issued under judicial interpretations of Shari'a. However, there were no reported cases of the death penalty being applied for apostasy during the reporting period.

Proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims is illegal. Evangelical church leaders are subject to pressure from authorities to sign pledges that they will not evangelize Muslims or allow Muslims to attend church services. Members of religious minorities, excluding Sunni Muslims, are prevented from serving in the judiciary and security services and from becoming public school principals.

Applicants for public sector employment are screened for their adherence to and knowledge of Islam, although members of religious minorities could serve in lower ranks of government employment, with the exception of Baha'is. However, government workers who do not observe Islam's principles and rules are subject to penalties.

The Constitution states that the army must be Islamic and must recruit individuals who are committed to the objectives of the Islamic Revolution. In practice, however, no religious minorities are exempt from military service. The law forbids non-Muslims from holding officer positions over Muslims in the armed forces. Members of religious minorities with a college education can serve as officers during their mandatory military service but cannot be career military officers.

By law, religious minorities are not allowed to be elected to a representative body or to hold senior government or military positions, with the exception that 5 of a total 290 seats in the Majles are reserved for religious minorities. Three of these seats are reserved for members of Christian religious groups, including two seats for Armenian Christians and one for Assyrian Christians. There is also one seat to represent Jews and one to represent Zoroastrians. While Sunnis do not have reserved seats in the Majles, they are allowed to serve in the body. Sunni Majles deputies tend to be elected from among the larger Sunni communities. Members of religious minorities are allowed to vote; however, no member of a religious minority, including Sunni Muslims, is eligible to be president.

The legal system discriminates against religious minorities. Article 297 of the amended 1991 Islamic Punishments Act authorizes collection of equal "blood money" (diyeh) as restitution to families for the death of both Muslims and non-Muslims. Prior to a 2004 change, the law gave a lesser monetary amount as "blood money" for non-Muslims. Baha'is and Sabean-Mandaeans, in addition to women, are excluded from the equalization provisions of the bill. According to law, Baha'i blood is considered mobah, meaning it can be spilled with impunity.
Adherents of religious groups not recognized by the Constitution, such as the Baha'is, do not have freedom to practice their beliefs. The Government prohibits Baha'is from teaching and practicing their faith. Baha'is are barred from all leadership positions in the Government and military.

The Government considers Baha'is to be apostates and defines the Baha'i Faith as a political "sect." The Ministry of Justice states that Baha'is are permitted to enroll in schools only if they do not identify themselves as such, and that Baha'is preferably should be enrolled in schools with a strong and imposing religious ideology. There were reports that Baha'i children in public schools faced attempts to convert them to Islam.

After a brief policy change in 2007 allowing Baha'i students to enroll in universities, the Government reverted to its previous practice of requiring Baha'i students to identify themselves as a religion other than Baha'i in order to register for the entrance examination. This action precluded Baha'i enrollment in state-run universities, since a tenet of the Baha'i Faith is not to deny one's faith.

The Ministry of Justice states that Baha'is must be excluded or expelled from universities, either in the admission process or during the course of their studies, if their religious affiliation becomes known. University applicants are required to pass an examination in Islamic, Christian, or Jewish theology, but there was no test for the Baha'i theology.

Baha'is are banned from the social pension system. In addition, Baha'is are regularly denied compensation for injury or criminal victimization and the right to inherit property. Baha'i marriages and divorces are not officially recognized, although the Government allows a civil attestation of marriage to serve as a marriage certificate.

The Government allows recognized religious minorities to establish community centers and certain self-financed cultural, social, athletic, or charitable associations. However, the Government prohibited the Baha'i community from official assembly and from maintaining administrative institutions by closing any such institutions.

The Government propagated a legal interpretation of Islam that effectively deprived women of many rights granted to men. Gender segregation was enforced generally throughout the country without regard to religious affiliation. Women of all religious groups were expected to adhere to Islamic dress in public. Although enforcement of rules for conservative Islamic dress eased at times, the Government periodically cracked down on "un-Islamic dress." The Government's 12-point contract model for marriage and divorce limits the rights accorded to women by custom and traditional interpretations of Islamic law.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

During the reporting period, respect for religious freedom in the country continued to deteriorate. Government rhetoric and actions created a threatening atmosphere for nearly all non-Shi'a religious groups, most notably for Baha'is, as well as Sufi Muslims, evangelical Christians, and members of the Jewish community. Reports of government imprisonment, harassment, intimidation, and discrimination based on religious beliefs continued during the reporting period.

Baha'i religious groups reported arbitrary arrest and prolonged detention, expulsions from universities, and confiscation of property. Government-controlled broadcast and print media intensified negative campaigns against religious minorities, particularly the Baha'is, during the reporting period. All non-Shi'a religious minorities suffered varying degrees of officially sanctioned discrimination, particularly in the areas of employment, education, and housing.

The Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance (Ershad) and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) monitored religious activity closely. Members of recognized religious minorities were not required to register with the Government; however, their communal, religious, and cultural events and organizations, including schools, were monitored closely. Registration of Baha'is was a police function during the reporting period. The Government also required evangelical Christian groups to compile and submit membership lists for their congregations.

The Government generally allowed recognized religious minority groups to conduct religious education for their adherents in separate schools, although it restricted this right considerably in some cases. The Ministry of Education, which imposed certain curriculum requirements, supervised these schools. With few exceptions, the directors of such private schools must be Muslim. Attendance at the schools was not mandatory for recognized religious minorities.

The Ministry of Education must approve all textbooks used in coursework, including religious texts. Recognized religious minorities could provide religious instruction in non-Persian languages, but such texts required approval by the authorities. This approval requirement sometimes imposed significant translation expenses on minority communities. However, Assyrian Christians reported that their community was permitted to write its own textbooks, which, following government authorization, were then printed at government expense and distributed to the Assyrian community.

On May 25, 2009, the EU Presidency issued a statement expressing its deep concern over the violations of religious freedom in the country. On December 18, 2008, for the sixth consecutive year, the U.N. General Assembly passed another resolution condemning the human rights situation in the country and decrying the Government's harsh treatment of religious minorities.

Broad restrictions on Baha'is severely undermined their ability to freely practice their faith and function as a community. Baha'i groups reported that the Government often denied applications for new or renewed business and trade licenses to Baha'is. The Government repeatedly pressured Baha'is to accept relief from mistreatment in exchange for recanting their religious beliefs. The Government prevented many Baha'is from leaving the country.

Baha'is could not teach or practice their religious beliefs or maintain links with coreligionists abroad. Baha'is were often officially charged with "espionage on behalf of Zionism," in part due to the fact that the Baha'i world headquarters is located in Israel. These charges were more acute when Baha'is were caught communicating with or sending monetary contributions to the Baha'i headquarters.

During the reporting period, Baha'is continued to face an increasing number of public attacks, including a series of negative and defamatory articles in Kayhan, a government-affiliated newspaper whose managing editor was appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene'i. The national daily newspaper Etemad and several provincial newspapers also published defamatory articles against Baha'is. The articles often accused Baha'i and Sunni Salafist groups of working together to undermine national security and to commit espionage on behalf of foreign governments. State-run media reported that on May 19, 2009 Majles member Hojjatoleslam Mohammad-Ebrahim Nekounam told a session of Parliament that Baha'ism was established to "infiltrate Iran" and "create divisions" among Muslims and that members of the Baha'i community throughout the country were working toward those goals. In February 2009 the semiofficial Fars News Agency reported that the Prosecutor General sent a letter to the Minister of Intelligence warning that Baha'is had "extensive and established ties with the Zionist regime and their members try to collect information, carry out infiltration activities, and destroy people's belief in Islam." During the reporting period, articles in the state-run media alleged that Baha'ism encourages its followers to commit incest with close family members.

Public and private universities continued to deny admittance to or expel Baha'i students. Although in 2007 the Government briefly allowed Baha'i matriculation into universities, in 2008 the Government reverted to its earlier policy of denying university admittance to Baha'i students; this policy remained in effect throughout the reporting period.

There were reports that the Government compiled a list of Baha'is and their trades and employment using information from the Association of Chambers of Commerce and related organizations, which are nominally independent bodies that are nonetheless heavily influenced by the Government.

Many Sunnis claimed that the Government discriminated against them. However, it is difficult to distinguish whether the cause of discrimination was religious or ethnic, since most Sunnis are also members of ethnic minorities. Sunnis cited the absence of a Sunni mosque in Tehran, despite the presence of more than one million adherents there, as a prominent example. Sunni leaders reported bans on Sunni religious literature and teachings in public schools, even in predominantly Sunni areas.

Human rights organizations reported that the Government demolished several Sunni mosques during the reporting period. Sunnis also noted the underrepresentation of Sunnis in government-appointed positions in the provinces where they form a majority, such as Kurdistan and Khuzestan Provinces, as well as their inability to obtain senior governmental positions.

Sunni Majles representatives asserted that government discrimination led to the lack of Sunni presence in the executive and judicial branches, especially in higher-ranking positions in embassies, universities, and other institutions, as well as anti-Sunni propaganda in the mass media, including books and other publications.

While the Government recognizes Judaism as an official religious minority, the Jewish community experienced official discrimination. The Government continued to sanction anti-Semitic propaganda involving official statements, media outlets, publications, and books. The Government's anti-Semitic rhetoric, along with a perception among radical Muslims that all Jewish citizens of the country support Zionism and the state of Israel, continued to create a hostile atmosphere for Jews. The rhetorical attacks also further blurred the line between Zionism, Judaism, and Israel and contributed to increased concerns about the future security of the Jewish community.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continued a virulent anti-Semitic campaign. During the reporting period, the President publicly stated in news conferences that the Zionists infiltrated the world and must be stopped and destroyed, together with Israel.

President Ahmadinejad continued to regularly question the existence and the scope of the Holocaust, which created a more hostile environment for the Jewish community. At a January 2009 speech at Sharif University in Tehran, the President alleged that the "Holocaust discourse" was created to expand "Zionist command over centers of power, wealth, and the world media."

The Government promoted and condoned anti-Semitism in state media; however, with some exceptions, there was little government restriction of, or interference with, Jewish religious practice. The Government reportedly allowed Hebrew instruction but limited the distribution of Hebrew texts, particularly nonreligious texts, making it difficult to teach the language. Moreover, the Government required that in conformity with the schedule of other schools, Jewish schools must remain open on Saturdays, which violates Jewish law.

Jewish citizens were free to travel out of the country but were subject to the general restriction against travel by the country's citizens to Israel. This restriction, however, was not enforced.

The Sabean-Mandaean religious community reportedly faced harassment and repression by authorities similar to that faced by other religious minorities. The Government often denied members of the Sabean-Mandaean community access to higher education.

Sufis within the country, Sufi organizations outside the country, as well as numerous human rights organizations, remained extremely concerned about growing government repression of Sufi communities and religious practices, including increased harassment and intimidation of prominent Sufi leaders by the intelligence and security services. Government restrictions on Sufi groups and houses of worship (husseiniya) became more pronounced in recent reporting periods. There were numerous reports of Shi'a clerics and prayer leaders denouncing Sufism and the activities of Sufis in the country in both sermons and public statements.

The Government carefully monitored the statements and views of senior Shi'a religious leaders. The Special Clerical Courts, established to investigate offenses and crimes committed by clerics, and which the Supreme Leader oversees directly, are not provided for in the Constitution and operate outside the judiciary. In particular, critics alleged that the clerical courts are used to prosecute certain clerics for expressing controversial political ideas and for participating in nonreligious activities, including journalism.

Non-Shi'a religious leaders reported abuse and widespread restrictions on their ability to practice their faith. They also reported bans on Sunni teachings in public schools and Sunni religious literature. Residents of provinces with large Sunni populations, including Kurdistan, Khuzestan, and Sistan-va-Baluchestan, reported discrimination and lack of resources, but it is difficult to determine if this discrimination was based on religion or ethnicity, or both.

Laws based on religious affiliation continued to be used to stifle freedom of expression. Independent newspapers and magazines have been closed, and leading publishers and journalists have been imprisoned on vague charges of "insulting Islam" or "calling into question the Islamic foundation of the Republic." According to domestic press reports, on June 9, 2009, singer Mohsen Namju was sentenced to a 5-year prison term for "insulting Islamic sanctities, reciting verses of the Holy Qur'an ridiculously, and insulting the world Muslims' sacred book."

On October 8, 2008, authorities in Qom arrested online journalist and cleric Mojtaba Lotfi for posting on an Internet site a sermon by Ayatollah Montazaeri, a well-known opponent of the system of clerical rule. The sermon criticized President Ahmadinejad for saying Iran is the freest country in the world. On November 29, 2008, a special court for the clergy sentenced Lotfi to 4 years in prison and 5 years of banishment from Qom.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

According to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States and other leading human rights organizations, more than 200 Baha'is have been killed since 1979, and 15 have disappeared and are presumed dead.

Baha'i groups outside the country reported that government authorities increased their harassment and intimidation of the members of the Baha'i community during the reporting period.

The Government continued to imprison and detain Baha'is based on their religious beliefs. The Government arbitrarily arrested Baha'is and charged them with violating Islamic Penal Code Articles 500 and 698, relating to activities against the state and spreading falsehoods, respectively. Often the charges were not dropped upon release, and those with charges pending against them reportedly feared re-arrest at any time. Most were released only after paying large fines or posting high bails. For some, bail was in the form of deeds of property; others gained their release in exchange for personal guarantees or work licenses.

At the end of June 2009, at least 20 to 30 Baha'is remained in detention because of their religious beliefs. The Government never formally charged many of the others but released them only after they posted bail.

In mid-March, intelligence agents in Sari reportedly arrested Shirin Foroughian Samimi, a Baha'i. In 2008 authorities closed down her husband's store, arrested him, and charged him with endangering national security. He was released after 9 days.

On March 9, 2009, security forces reportedly arrested Baha'i Pooya Tebyanian in his home in Semnan.

On January 18, 2009, security forces in Ghaemshahr in Mazandaran Province detained four Baha'is after raiding their homes. Previously, on January 10, authorities in Ghaemshahr arrested another Baha'i, Pegah Sanaie; she was released on bail on January 17.On January 16, 2009, several Baha'i women were reportedly arrested for performing missionary work on Kish Island.On January 15, 2009, security forces in Tehran arrested five Baha'is and took them to Evin Prison. At least one Baha'i, a woman from Shiraz named Negin Rezaei, was being held in section 209 of Evin Prison at the end of the reporting period.
On January 9, 2009, three Baha'i community leaders--Adel Fanaian, Abbas Nourani, and Zaher Eskandarian--were arrested in their homes in Semnan Province.

On November 22, 2008, authorities arrested two Baha'is in Sari, Mazandaran Province, after searching their homes and confiscating Baha'i materials.
On November 18, 2008, a Baha'i was arrested in Ghaemshahr.

Two officials of the Baha'i community in Isfahan and one other member of the Baha'i community, arrested in May 2008, reportedly on charges of burying their dead at a particular site that had been used for the past 15 years, remained in Isfahan Prison at the end of the reporting period.

The seven leaders of the Baha'i community--Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Behrouz Tavakkoli, Saeid Rezaie, Vahid Tizfahm, and Mahvash Sabet--arrested between March and May 2008 remained in detention. In February 2009 the Judiciary spokesman announced that the seven were accused of "espionage for Israel, insulting religious sanctities and propaganda against the Islamic Republic." In May 2009 state-run media reported the Government also charged them with "spreading corruption on earth," a crime punishable by death. None had been allowed access to their attorney, Abdolfattah Soltani. On June 16, 2009, security agents arrested Soltani without a warrant and took him to an unknown location. At the end of the reporting period, the Baha'i leaders were awaiting trial by a revolutionary court.

Mohammad Ismael Forouzan, a Baha'i arrested in March 2008 on unknown charges, was informed that his appeal had been denied, and he began serving a 1-year prison sentence.

Aziz Pourhamzeh, Kamran Aghdasi, and Fathollah Khatbjavan, detained in January 2008, reportedly remained in prison at the end of the reporting period.
Pouriya Habibi and Simin Mokhtari, arrested in January 2008 and detained on charges of teaching the Baha'i Faith, reportedly remained in Evin Prison at the end of the reporting period.

The Government continued to hold many Baha'i properties, including cemeteries, holy places, historical sites, and administrative centers, that were seized following the 1979 Revolution. Many of the properties have been destroyed. Baha'is were generally prevented from burying and honoring their dead in accordance with their religious tradition.

On January 19, 2009, the Baha'i cemetery of Ghaemshahr was attacked for the fourth time in 8 months and almost completely destroyed. According to witnesses, municipality officials razed the cemetery with a bulldozer at night.
On January 12, 2009, government workers entered a Tehran cemetery and demolished an entire section known as the burial ground of "infidels," an area where the Government interred people executed in the early years of the Islamic Revolution. Among the graves destroyed were those of Baha'is who had been members of national or local Baha'i governing councils in 1980, 1981, or 1984, years when the government rounded up the members of these councils and executed them.

The property rights of Baha'is were generally disregarded, and they suffered frequent government harassment and persecution. The Government raided Baha'i homes and businesses and confiscated large numbers of private and commercial properties, as well as religious materials, belonging to Baha'is. The Government reportedly seized numerous Baha'i homes and handed them over to an agency of Supreme Leader Khamene'i. The Government also seized private homes in which Baha'i youth classes were held, despite the owners' having proper ownership documents. The Baha'i community reported that the Government's seizure of Baha'i personal property and its denial of Baha'i access to education and employment was eroding the economic base of the community and threatening its survival.

On March 1, 2009, the University of Semnan expelled Minoo Shahriari, an economics student, on the grounds that she was Baha'i.

According to domestic press reports, the University of Kerman expelled nine Baha'i students on January 14, 2009.

On December 1, 2008, there were reports of protests by Muslim students at Goldshat College in Kelardasht in Mazandaran Province over the expulsion of a
Baha'i classmate.

On November 2, 2008, two Baha'i students were expelled from Shaheed Beheshti University on the basis of their religion.

There were reports of authorities forcing Baha'i businesses to close, placing restrictions on their businesses, and asking managers of private companies to dismiss their Baha'i employees.

Sufi Muslims likewise faced an increasing repression campaign, including defamatory attacks in newspapers and in sermons by Shi'a clerics.
On March 14, 2009, a representative of the Gonabadi dervishes, a Sufi mystical sect, reported that authorities were holding 41 dervishes in Evin Prison for practicing their religion.

On February 18, 2009, authorities razed the house of worship of Gonabadi dervishes at Takht-e Foulad, in Isfahan, with bulldozers. All Sufis present were arrested and had their mobile phones confiscated. Sufi books and publications were destroyed.

In January 2009 Jamshid Lak, a Sufi of the Gonabadi Dervish order, was flogged 74 times. He was charged in 2006 with "slander" against the Ministry of Intelligence after reportedly publicly complaining of the ill treatment he received at the hands of the Ministry.

In late December 2008, authorities arrested six members of the Gonabadi Dervishes on Kish Island. Their books, other materials, and computers were confiscated.

In November 2008 Amir Ali Mohammad Labaf, of the Nematollahi Gonabadi Sufi order, was sentenced to 74 lashes, 5 years in prison, and internal exile to the town of Babak for "spreading lies."

In October 2008 at least seven Sufi Muslims in Isfahan and five Sufis in Karaj were arrested because of their affiliation with the Nematollahi Gonabadi Sufi order.

Christians, particularly evangelicals, continued to be subject to harassment and close surveillance. During the reporting period, the Government vigilantly enforced its prohibition on proselytizing by closely monitoring the activities of evangelical Christians, discouraging Muslims from entering church premises, closing churches, and arresting Christian converts. Members of evangelical congregations were required to carry membership cards, photocopies of which must be provided to the authorities. Worshippers were subject to identity checks by authorities posted outside congregation centers. The Government restricted meetings for evangelical services to Sundays, and church officials were ordered to inform the Ministry of Information and Islamic Guidance before admitting new members.

On May 21, 2009, security officials arrested five Christian converts in Karaj who had gathered in a home for Bible study and worship. The house where they were meeting was searched and several Bibles confiscated. The five were being held at an unknown location.

On May 14, 2009, authorities arrested Abdul Zahra Vashahi, father of a prominent Christian Iranian human rights activist in the United Kingdom, in Bandar Manshahr after warning him that he would be held accountable for his son's activities. He was released 6 days later.

On May 14, 2009, a court in Ouroumieh reportedly denied pension benefits to Fatemeh Pauki, a retired Christian school teacher from West Azerbaijan Province. Pauki had been repeatedly detained and forced by authorities to promise to end her contact with Christian groups. Her husband, who had been detained and harassed by authorities over the years as well, was mysteriously killed in 2005.
In late March 2009, according to domestic human rights groups, a revolutionary court closed the Pentecostal church of Shahr Ara in Tehran, which belongs to Assyrian Christians. According to reports, the stated reason for the closure was the "illegal activities" of converting Muslims to Christianity and "accepting converts" to worship as members of the congregation.

On March 10, 2009, a Shiraz court sentenced three Christian converts--Seyed Allaedin Hussein, Homayoon Shokouhi, and Seyed Amir Hussein Bob-Annari--to 8-month prison terms with 5 years' probation. The judge warned the men to discontinue their Christian activities or risk being tried as apostates.

On March 5, 2009, authorities arrested two members of the Christian community, Maryam Rostampour and Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad. The women were being held in Evin Prison and reportedly were not receiving adequate medical care.

On January 21, 2009, authorities arrested three Christians--Hamik Khachikian (an Armenian Christian), Jamal Ghalishorani, and Nadereh Jamali (both Christian converts)--in Tehran. Their homes were searched and their computers and books were confiscated. According to a February 9 report, Khachikian was released without charges on January 28, while Ghalishorani and Nadereh were later released on bail.

On October 22, 2008, Ramtin Soodmand, a Christian, was released on bail. Soodmand had been arrested on August 21 on charges of spreading antigovernment propaganda.

On July 17, 2008, plain clothes security officers raided the home of Isfahan Iranian Christians Abbas Amiri and his wife, Sakineh Rahnama, during a meeting. Both Amiri and Rahnama died of injuries suffered during the raid. Authorities denied permission for the local Christian community to hold a memorial service for the couple.

On June 3, 2008, a Christian convert couple, Makan Arya and Tin Rad, reportedly were seized from their home in Tehran. Authorities accused Arya of "activities against national security" and Rad of "activities against the holy religion of Islam." Officials threatened to charge the two with apostasy. After being forced to sign statements swearing that they had not converted from Islam, Arya and Rad were released on bail. The two were forced to leave their church, and Arya was pressured to display pictures of Muslim leaders in his storefront window to ward off continued attacks on his shop.

According to a September 30, 2008, report, Christian converts Mahmoud Matin-Azad and Arash Basirat were released after a tribunal ruled that the charges of apostasy brought against the men were invalid. The two were arrested in Shiraz in May 2008.

Christian convert Mojataba Hussein, arrested in May 2008, remained in detention. His family did not know where he was being held, and requests for a visit were denied. There were no developments in the 2007 killings of three senior Sunni clerics.

Forced Religious Conversions

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States or who had not been allowed to be returned to the United States.

Government officials reportedly offered Baha'is relief from mistreatment in exchange for recanting their religious affiliation, and if incarcerated, recanting their religious affiliation as a precondition for releasing them.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Although the Constitution gives Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians the status of "protected" religious minorities, in practice non-Shi'a Muslims faced substantial societal discrimination, and government actions continued to support elements of society who create a threatening atmosphere for some religious minorities. President Ahmadinejad's agenda stressed the importance of Islam in enhancing "national solidarity" and mandated that government-controlled media emphasize Islamic culture in order to "cause subcultures to adapt themselves to public culture."

After President Ahmadinejad took office in August 2005, conservative media intensified a campaign against non-Muslim religious minorities, and political and religious leaders issued a continual stream of inflammatory statements. The campaigns against non-Muslims contributed to a significantly worse situation for non-Muslim society throughout the reporting period.

Sunni Muslims and Christians encountered societal and religious discrimination and harassment at the local, provincial, and national levels.

Baha'is faced government-sanctioned discrimination in the workplace. Baha'i graveyards in Abadeh and other cities were desecrated, and the Government did not seek to identify or punish the perpetrators.

Baha'i groups outside the country reported vandalism of Baha'i cemeteries, the desecration of a body exhumed from a Baha'i grave in Abadeh, and attacks against a Baha'i cemetery in Najafabad.

On October 23, 2008, individuals using a bulldozer desecrated a Baha'i cemetery in Darzikola.

The car of Soheil Naeimi, a Baha'i, was burned in Rafsanjan in Kerman Province on July 25, 2008, after his family and ten other Baha'i families received threatening letters from a group calling itself the "Anti-Baha'ism Movement of the Youth of Rafsanjan."

On July 18, 2008, a Baha'i family's home was burned to the ground in Kerman, according to the representative of the Baha'i International Community to the U.N.

A building owned by a Baha'i couple was burned down in Tangriz in Fars Province on June 10, 2008. The family reportedly filed a formal criminal complaint, but authorities declined to pursue the case.

There were reported problems for Baha'is in different trades around the country. Baha'is experienced an escalation of personal harassment, including receiving threatening notes, compact discs, text messages, and tracts. There were reported cases of Baha'i children being harassed in school and subjected to Islamic indoctrination. Baha'i girls were especially targeted by students and educators, with the intention of creating tension between parents and children.

There was serious concern from several religious and human rights groups about the resurgence of the once banned Hojjatiyeh Society, a secretive religious-economic group that was founded in 1953 to rid the country of the Baha'i Faith in order to hasten the return of the 12th Imam (the Mahdi). Although not a government organization, it was believed that many members of the administration were Hojjatiyeh members and used their offices to advance the society's goals. However, it was unknown what role, if any, the group played in the arrests of numerous Baha'is during the reporting period. Many Baha'i human rights groups and news agencies described the goals of the Hojjatiyeh Society as the eradication of the Baha'is, not just the Baha'i Faith. The group's anti-Baha'i orientation reportedly widened to encompass anti-Sunni and anti-Sufi activities as well.

Many Jews sought to limit their contact with or support for the state of Israel out of fear of reprisal. Anti-American and anti-Israeli demonstrations included the denunciation of Jews, as opposed to the past practice of denouncing only "Israel" and "Zionism," adding to the threatening atmosphere for the community.

There were reports during the reporting period that members of the Sabean-Mandaean community experienced societal discrimination and pressure to convert to Islam.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

Iran was first designated a CPC in 1999 and was most recently re-designated on January 16, 2009. As the action under the IRF Act, the Secretary designated the existing ongoing restrictions on United States security assistance in accordance with section 40 of the Arms Export Control Act, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act. The United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran, and thus it does not raise directly with the Government the restrictions that the Government places on religious freedom and other abuses the Government commits against adherents of minority religious groups.

The U.S. Government makes its position clear in public statements and reports, support for relevant U.N. and nongovernmental organization efforts, and diplomatic initiatives to press for an end to government abuses. The U.S. Government calls on other countries that have bilateral relations with Iran to use those ties to press the Government on religious freedom and human rights matters.

On numerous occasions, the U.S. State Department spokesman has addressed the situation of the Baha'i and Jewish communities in the country. The U.S. Government has publicly condemned the treatment of the Baha'is in U.N. resolutions, including one that passed in the General Assembly in 2008. The U.S. Government encourages other governments to make similar statements.