A report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) accuses Iran of failing to protect minorities from discrimination and says that Islamic authorities have flagrantly persecuted other religious groups, particularly Baha'is and evangelical Christians.
"Constitutional provisions (giving) only qualified commitments to the principle of non-discrimination have proved to be no protection against what has become widespread, institutionalized discrimination and, in the case of the Baha'is and Evengelicals, outright persecution," according to Hanny Megally, director of HRW/Middle East Watch.
HRW and independent analysts, however, remain hopeful that Khatami, who was elected by in a landslide victory last May, may be more sympathetic to the minorities' plight. Last month, HRW sent a letter urging Khatami to follow through on campaign promises "to make the rule of law the basis of all aspects of society in Iran."
"The fact that Khatami made respect for the rule of law a major theme of his campaign is good news, but we have to wait and see," says Elahe Hicks, the main author of the new 36-page report.
Khatami has also written eloquently about freedom as a great achievement of Western civilization, according to Richard Bulliet, director of Columbia University's Middle East Institute. "That might permit one to hazard an opinion that religious freedom might be an important concern of his."
Iran's constitution guarantees all minority and religious rights provided they are consistent with "the limits of national law." Full exercise of those rights are also qualified by the overriding position of Islam as interpreted by the ruling circle of Shi'a clerics and the power of judges to rule on the basis of Islamic law.
With a population of more than 65 million, Iran is one of the world's most important multi-ethnic states. While almost two-thirds of the population is ethnic Persian, large ethnic minorities include more than 15 million Azaris, several million Baluchis, more than five million Kurds, one million Arabs, and several hundred thousand Turkamen and Lurs.
Most Kurds, Baluchis and Turkamen are Sunni Muslims. Smaller religious minorities include Christians of various denominations, Baha'is, Zoroastrians, and Jews. About 80 percent of the population are Shi'a Muslims.
The smaller religious groups are suffering the greatest persecution in the Islamic Republic today, according to the report, "Iran: Religious and Ethnic Minorities."
Of these, none has fared worse than members of the Baha'i faith, which number more than 300,000 in Iran, the home of its birth in the mid-19th century. Baha'i, some of whom were favored by the late Shah of Iran, has long been regarded by the Shi'a Muslim establishment as a threat to Islam and a tool of foreign powers, and the Shah's fall in 1979 produced some of the most intense persecution of Baha'i in their history. The faith lost protections given other faiths under the Islamic Republic's constitution.
More than 200 Baha'is were executed in the first six years of the Islamic revolution. Since 1983, Baha'i assemblies and festivals have been banned; participants have been prosecuted; and members have been pressured to adopt Islam, according to the report. As recently as February, 1996, death sentences on two men convicted of "engaging in Baha'i activities" in 1993, were confirmed by the supreme court.
In contrast, the government has mostly tolerated the church activities of the roughly 200,000 Orthodox Christians who have lived in Iran for nearly 2,000 years.
But Iran's Protestant churches, especially those which seek converts among Muslims, have drawn the government's strong hostility, according to the report, which cites their ties with churches in the United States and Europe as the cause of official suspicion. Since 1994, four church leaders have been slain "in circumstances suggesting government involvement," the report says.
While Jews have generally not been individually persecuted because of their religion, their Jewish identity has been emphasized by the official press when they are charged with crimes. Of the roughly 75,000 members of the Jewish community living in Iran in 1979, only about 25,000 remain, according to the report.
Sunni Muslims, who constitute the majority in almost all other countries of the Islamic world, have also suffered during the Islamic Republic, Middle East Watch says. Their prayer leaders are often appointed by the central authorities, and Shi'a clerics are encouraged to proselytize among them.
Several prominent Sunni leaders, one Kurd and three Baluchis, have died or been killed in suspicious circumstances in recent years and the son of Iran's most prominent Sunni cleric was gunned down in Pakistan last year, allegedly by Iranian agents, the report says.
Because the largest ethnic minorities are mostly Sunni, the aggressive Shi'ism of the ruling authorities has been a major source of conflict. This is especially true for Baluchis, who live mainly in the southeastern part of the country and who have long complained about institutionalized discrimination against them.
Baluchis who have tried to organize their community politically have been blocked, and some have charged that Teheran has launched a plan to change the ethnic balance in major Baluchi cities, the report says.
Growing nationalism among the large Azari community, which is concentrated in the northern part of the country, has drawn concern from Teheran which, since the creation of neighboring Azerbaijan in 1991, has denounced Azari leaders as separatists or Turkish spies. In March 1996, central authorities disqualified an Azari candidate from Tabriz from running in parliamentary elections, provoking widespread civil unrest in the regional capital.
Like their cousins in Iraq and Turkey, the Kurds, concentrated in the remote east, have long struggled for local autonomy, sometimes violently. An armed Kurdish insurgency persists, and Teheran's efforts to fight it have included the destruction of villages and population displacement, according to the report.
Hicks noted that Khatami may try to push Teheran towards a more conciliatory approach.
During a campaign meeting just before the May elections, he was quoted by local media as asking: "Who, more than the Kurds, can claim they are Iranian." He went on to praise the Kurds as providing critical support for the very creation of Iran.
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