Situation of the Baha'i minority in Iran and the existing legal framework.

AuthorMilani, Shahin

This article examines the situation of Iran's Baha'i community, the country's largest non-Muslim religious minority, in the context of the Islamic Republic's legal framework as well as President Hassan Rouhani's proposed Citizenship Rights Charter. Discussing provisions of the Iranian Constitution, Iran's criminal statute known as the Islamic Penal Code, and the proposed Citizenship Rights Charter, it is demonstrated that the Iranian government has institutionalized religious discrimination. Several examples of discrimination against Iranian Baha'is are provided to show the broad scope of these practices and how they impact individual Baha'is.


One hundred days after his inauguration, President Hassan Rouhani's administration released the first draft of its Citizenship Rights Charter. (1) President Rouhani has referred to this charter as a "good basis for harmony and unanimity." (2) He further stated that implementing the charter will also be a basis for respecting human rights, and that it will help Iran defend itself against allegations of human rights abuses from the international community. (3) A closer examination of this charter, coupled with an analysis of Iran's human rights record since President Rouhani's election in 2013, reveals that neither this charter nor similar endeavors can overcome the structural discriminatory practices institutionalized by the Iranian Constitution and widely exercised by various organs of the Iranian state. This article will focus on the situation of Iran's Baha'i community, the country's largest non-Muslim religious minority.

Since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Iran's Baha'i community has experienced outright discrimination. More than 200 Baha'is have been executed, killed, or have died in prison. (4) Baha'is have been systematically denied employment in the public sector and barred from entering Iran's state-run university system. Hundreds have been imprisoned because of their religious faith. According to the Baha'i International Community, as of 5 February 2016, there were more than 80 Baha'is imprisoned in Iran. (5) Confiscation of private property and destruction of Baha'i cemeteries are other means by which the Iranian government has exerted pressure on the Baha'i community.


Under Article 4 of the Iranian Constitution, all "civil, penal, financial, economic, administrative, cultural, military, political, and other laws and regulations must be based on Islamic criteria." (6) Article 19 states, "All people of Iran, whatever the ethnic group or tribe to which they belong, enjoy equal rights; color, race, language, and the like, do not bestow any privilege." (7) Conspicuously absent from Article 19 is religion. Read together, Articles 4 and 19 indicate that discrimination on the basis of religion, and Islamic law in particular, is acceptable. To be sure, Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christians, who are recognized as official religious minorities, are afforded certain rights. For instance, the Christian minority has three parliamentary seats--two for Armenians and one for Assyrians and Chaldeans--while Jews and Zoroastrians each have one.

In addition, Article 13 of the Constitution specifies that these recognized minorities are free to "perform their religious rites and ceremonies" within the confines of Iranian law. (8) These protections, however, are only limited to the three specified minorities and are not extended to those holding other religious beliefs. Furthermore, these protections fall short of ensuring equality under the law. For instance, Iran's criminal statute, known as the Islamic Penal Code, imposes the death penalty on anyone who murders a Muslim, but if a Muslim murders a non-Muslim, he or she will not be put to death. (9)


The Citizenship Rights Charter does not attempt to change the institutionalized discrimination found in the Iranian Constitution. Again, religion is left out of categories that prohibit discrimination: "All Iranian citizens, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, wealth, social class, race, etc. enjoy citizenship rights and the foreseen guarantees in rules and regulations." (10) This omission is almost certainly deliberate; religion is indeed mentioned in several other articles of the charter. Article 3-117 reiterates the constitutional right of recognized religious minorities to hold and attend religious ceremonies. (11) Article 3-125 states that citizens have the right to enjoy historical and religious monuments. (12) More consequential is Article 3-79, which declares, "Any deprivation, restriction, or preference among the citizens in their access to public services, government services, health services, and education based on factors such as color, gender, language, religion, faith, etc. is prohibited." (13) This article, if implemented, could make a significant difference in at least one facet of discrimination against Baha'is. As mentioned above, Baha'is have been barred from Iran's state-run university system. Article 3-79 could potentially reverse this ban, assuming that the term "religion" also encompasses beliefs not among Iran's recognized religious minorities.

Despite a few provisions that could potentially change discriminatory policies, the overwhelming thrust of the Citizenship Rights Charter follows the established patterns of legal religious discrimination. Article 1-5 states that the charter aims to recognize the duties of the Iranian government within the framework of the Iranian Constitution, Sharia law, and other regulations. (14) Furthermore, according to Article 1-6, this charter "does not intend to create new rights or duties," but...

To continue reading

Request your trial