A U.S. government body that monitors global religious freedom says conditions in Iran worsened last year, with escalated government targeting of non-Shi’ite Muslims and minority Baha’is and Christians.

In its annual report published Monday, the bi-partisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said Iran merits designation as one of 16 countries of particular concern based on conditions in 2018. The State Department has made that designation for Iran every year since 1999, a move that enables the United States to impose travel restrictions and other sanctions on Iranians responsible for perceived religious freedom abuses.

USCIRF uses its religious freedom findings to make policy recommendations to the U.S. president, State Department and Congress.

“Sadly, this year (our report) shows no progress in Iran at all between last year and this year,” USCIRF Commissioner Gary Bauer told VOA Persian at a Monday presentation of the report at the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington. “(Iran) continues to persecute various religious minorities including Muslim minorities that don’t agree with its Shi’ite regime.”

Gary Bauer, a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedo
Gary Bauer, a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, speaks to VOA Persian at the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington on April 29, 2019.

There was no immediate response to the USCIRF report in Iranian state-approved media.

Iran is an overwhelmingly Muslim nation led by Shi’ite clerics who established the Jaafari school of Shia Islam as the state religion in the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Of the 99% of Iranians who are Muslims, U.S. government data show 90–95% are Shi’ites while 5–10% are Sunnis.

Iran’s constitution permits the practice of four schools of Sunni Islam. But, it does not recognize Sufism, a mystical form of Islam whose adherents, known as Dervishes, are seen as a heretical minority by Iran’s ruling clerics. USCIRF’s report said hundreds of Sufis were arrested and scores were sent to solitary confinement and beaten in prison last year.

USCIRF said Tehran also discriminated against minority Sunnis by rejecting their repeated requests to build an official mosque in the Iranian capital last year. It said several Iranian Sunni clerics were targets of violence, with a gunman killing one last July in southern Iran.

Iran’s estimated 300,000 Bahai’s, who constitute the nation’s largest non-Muslim minority, faced ongoing arbitrary detention, harassment and imprisonment based on their religion last year, according to the report. The Iranian government does not recognize the Baha’is faith as a religion and labels its followers as heretics as well. “(Iran) continued its long-term practice of egregious economic and educational persecution of the (Baha’i) community,” USCIRF said.

Iran recognizes Christianity, but the USCIRF report said it “drastically” escalated arrests of the nation’s almost 300,000 Christians last year. USCIRF said Iranian authorities arrested 171 Christians in 2018, most of them in the first week of December ahead of the Christmas holiday. It said Iran arrested only 16 Christians the year before.

USCIRF said another Iran-recognized religious minority, a community of 15,000 to 20,000 Jews, faced a government-driven anti-Semitic sentiment that was less pronounced than in previous years. But, it said Iran continued to “propagate and tolerate anti-Semitism,” highlighting an Iranian presidential aide’s role in organizing an October 2018 Tehran conference that accused Jews of manipulating the global economy and exploiting the Holocaust.

“The Iranian government regularly calls for a second Holocaust when they call for the destruction of the only Jewish state in the world,” USCIRF Commissioner Bauer told VOA Persian.

The USCIRF report urged the U.S. government to speak out frequently at all levels about what it called “severe religious freedom abuses” in Iran; to freeze the assets of Iranian officials responsible for such abuses and bar their entry into the United States; and to press for the release of all prisoners of conscience in the country.

“We have asked both the (Trump) administration and Congress to keep religious liberty and human rights as a central part of our dealings and negotiations with Iran,” Bauer said.

The Trump administration has said it wants to negotiate a new deal with Iran to end an alleged nuclear weapons program and other perceived malign behaviors. But Iranian leaders have rejected any negotiations until the United States lifts all sanctions re-imposed on Tehran since Trump withdrew last year from a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers.

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