Commentary Magazine


Topic: Baha’is

Obama, Kerry Ignore Law on Cemetery Desecration

Earlier this month, President Obama signed into law the “Protect Cemeteries Act” which amended the International Religious Freedom Act to include cemetery desecration as a violation of religious freedom. The full text of the bill, as signed into law by Obama, is here.

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Earlier this month, President Obama signed into law the “Protect Cemeteries Act” which amended the International Religious Freedom Act to include cemetery desecration as a violation of religious freedom. The full text of the bill, as signed into law by Obama, is here.

The Islamic Republic of Iran—a country which President Obama increasingly treats as a diplomatic partner—now presents the first challenge to the new law. From the U.S. Baha’i Office of Public Affairs:

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has resumed its destruction of a Baha’i cemetery in the city of Shiraz, while a bill passed by Congress and signed into law by the President earlier this month – known as the “Protect Cemeteries Act” – makes this type of cemetery desecration a sanctionable religious freedom violation. The Guard began excavating the site in April 2014, but temporarily suspended its activity following an international outcry. The cemetery is the site of 950 Baha’i graves, including those of 10 Baha’i women who were hanged in 1983, the youngest of whom was 17 years old. In June, the Guard held a public celebration of its progress in clearing the site, which it plans to turn into a cultural and sports complex. Reports from Iran indicate that the Guard has now removed human remains from some 30 of the 50 graves in the cemetery and placed them into an open canal.

In my recent study of engaging rogue regimes, one of the clear costs of such diplomacy—in almost every single example—is augmented abuse of religious freedom by the targets of America’s diplomacy. Rogues know that once the White House or State Department starts a process, it is loath to criticize rogue regimes for fear that they will walk away from the negotiating table. American outreach is akin to a free pass on accountability for any domestic repression.

The Obama presidency has been marked by disdain for the checks and balances inherent in the American system. Obama may be frustrated that he cannot achieve his agenda in the face of a recalcitrant Congress or dubious court; in this he would be joined by his 43 predecessors. But while the president may feel the end justifies the means as he bypasses laws that he did not support or sign, the “Protect Cemeteries Act” is a law which the president supported and which he signed just two weeks ago. Laws should be more than simply about a photo-op at a signing ceremony; it’s time for the president and Secretary of State John Kerry to stand up and sanction Iran for its clear and blatant violation of the amended International Religious Freedom Act, and for Congress to demand the president uphold the law he signed, and use its power of the purse both to make its displeasure felt and simultaneously to stand up for religious liberty.

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First They Came For the Baha’is….

There is a common misconception that Iran’s restrictions on the right to worship freely apply only to members of the Baha’i religion. But while the Islamic republic has reserved the most vicious forms of persecution for the adherents of this gentle faith — whose numbers, according to some estimates, have dwindled from around 500,000 at the time of the 1979 revolution to just 150,000 now — the situation of Iranian Christians is little better.

Through its treatment of its Christian and Jewish minorities, Iran’s policies underscore that mythology behind the oft-heard claim that the followers of the “Abrahamic” faiths are accorded dignity and respect. Just last week, Iran’s millenarian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, told an Islamic conference in Tehran that Islam is the only true religion, denying at the same time the divine provenance of both Judaism and Christianity. “My dear ones!” Ahmadinejad declared munificently, “Islam is a world religion and God has only one religion, that of Islam, he did not send Judaism or Christianity; Abraham was a harbinger of Islam, as were Moses and Jesus!”

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There is a common misconception that Iran’s restrictions on the right to worship freely apply only to members of the Baha’i religion. But while the Islamic republic has reserved the most vicious forms of persecution for the adherents of this gentle faith — whose numbers, according to some estimates, have dwindled from around 500,000 at the time of the 1979 revolution to just 150,000 now — the situation of Iranian Christians is little better.

Through its treatment of its Christian and Jewish minorities, Iran’s policies underscore that mythology behind the oft-heard claim that the followers of the “Abrahamic” faiths are accorded dignity and respect. Just last week, Iran’s millenarian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, told an Islamic conference in Tehran that Islam is the only true religion, denying at the same time the divine provenance of both Judaism and Christianity. “My dear ones!” Ahmadinejad declared munificently, “Islam is a world religion and God has only one religion, that of Islam, he did not send Judaism or Christianity; Abraham was a harbinger of Islam, as were Moses and Jesus!”

The majority of Iran’s 300,000 Christians belong to established churches like the Armenian and the Assyrian; for the time being, their fate is to walk on eggshells around the regime, which means they can’t say or do anything that the mullahs might interpret as proselytizing. By contrast, it is open season on the followers of the smaller, evangelical denominations, all of whom risk being charged with the crime of moharebeh, or apostasy.

Arguably the best known victim of this charge is the 35 year-old Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who marked his 1,000th day of incarceration In Iran’s Lakan prison earlier this month. Nadarkhani, a leader of the evangelical Church of Iran who embraced Christianity as a child, has been given a choice: recant and return to Islam, or face the death sentence. So far, Nadarkhani has held firm.

Nadarkhani’s plight reflects a long-established pattern of harassment. In 1990, Pastor Hussein Soodman, like Nadarkhani a convert from Islam to Christianity, was executed after he repeatedly defied the regime’s insistence that he recant. Soodman’s execution set the tone for Iran’s future dealings with converts to Christianity; in the last year, as well as Nadarkhani, several other pastors have been locked behind by bars, charged with offenses ranging from “crimes against national security” to the life-threatening accusation of moharebeh.

What applies to these church leaders applies increasingly to their flocks. According to a report from ANS, a news service that highlights Christian persecution, Iranian Revolutionary Guards have closed down the Central Assembly of God Church in Tehran, along with a campsite that holds Bible study schools and conferences. In tandem, the regime has imposed the sorts of restrictions that will be familiar to those who remember the persecution of Jews in the old Soviet Union: prohibiting the distribution of the Bible and associated Christian literature; allowing only small numbers of worshippers to attend services; checking IDs before worshippers enter services, which is a surefire way of depleting attendance through fear; and preventing the conduct of services in the Farsi language.

A recent report on the treatment of Christian converts in Iran related the remark of an Iranian intelligence agent to the mother of two converts who were hauled away from their Tehran apartment for questioning: “Tell Jesus to come and rescue them.” One will probably not find a better statement of the regime’s true intent.

The reaction of western church leaders to the brazen demonization of Christianity in Iran has been typically nervous. Nadarkhani has been the subject of several press releases asking for clemency, but there is a clear reluctance to identify Iran’s strategy for what it is: the first stage of a campaign to eradicate Christianity from the country.

The “message of solidarity” issued by South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu last month illustrates this problem well enough. Tutu, who is best known in recent years for franchising the word “apartheid” to adversaries of the State of Israel, was at pains to point out that the torture and imprisonment which Iranian Christians face does “not reflect the Muslim faith.” Given that the vast bulk of the 100 million Christians around the world facing persecution reside in Muslim countries, it would seem that the archbishop is denying himself a much-needed reality check. Should the Iranian regime carry out its commitment to execute Pastor Nadarkhani, Iranian Christians will need much more than Tutuesque platitudes to soothe their wretched existence.

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