Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Religious toleration in Iran – Fariba Kamalabadi in Evin Prison, Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani on death row

In a recent item I posted on Religious toleration in Saudi Arabia – The dangers of text-messaging while Shiite, which was based on a report from an Iranian news service about the persecution of Shiites in Saudi Arabia, I noted in passing that
the Islamic Republic of Iran doesn't have a sterling record of its own when it comes to freedom of conscience in general or freedom of religion in particular.  There is not even the pretense of granting non-Muslim religions legal or cultural equality; certain religious minorities, like the Baha'i, are persecuted with special ferocity; Muslims who convert to Christianity may be charged with apostasy and face possible execution; and so on.  But there is no question that, overall, there is much more religious toleration in Iran than in Saudi Arabia (a country routinely described as our "ally" and as a quintessentially "moderate" Arab power).  Everything is relative.
Yes, everything is relative.  Here are two random cases that illustrate the present state of religious toleration in Iran.

=>  Vargha Taefi, an Iranian Baha'i living in Australia, writes about "The anguish of separation" from his mother, jailed for her religion in Iran.  (Thanks to Norman Geras for the tip.)
I am a financial adviser, aged 29. I live in Melbourne with my wife. We are surrounded by great friends, fabulous food and coffee. We enjoy all the buzz and life of this vibrant city.

My situation looks good from the outside. And it is, except there is no getting around the pain that runs through my life, a pain caused by the fact that I can't see or be with my mother, Fariba Kamalabadi.

My mother, who is innocent of any crime, has been held in Iranian prisons since May 14, 2008, because of her religion. She is a member of the Baha'i faith. She is serving a 20-year sentence, and this week marks the fifth year since her arrest.

A mother of three, she is an educational psychologist. She is also one of seven people - five men and two women - who served as the ad hoc leadership group for Iran's biggest non-Muslim religious minority, the Baha'i, numbering 300,000.

Her religious belief commits her to obey the law not to be involved in partisan political activity. In fact, as I witnessed it growing up, her life has been one of service to others. But instead of being publicly praised, she has become the target of vicious persecution by the Iranian authorities.

In May 2008, she and her colleagues, the oldest of whom is now 80, were arrested in co-ordinated dawn raids on their homes in Tehran.

For more than four months my mother was held in solitary confinement. In 2010, after 2½ years of detention, during which the seven were physically mistreated, they were charged with baseless accusations of espionage, insulting Islamic sanctities, crimes against national security, and ''spreading corruption on earth''. Any one of these charges can result in the death sentence in Iran.

During the time of their trial, they were denied access to their lawyer, Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi. The prison authorities allowed only a few visits from their families. Then, after being subjected to a sham trial, the most shocking news was announced - each was sentenced to a 20-year prison term. There was international outrage but they are still locked up.

My mother is being held in Evin Prison. She was previously in Rajaei Shahr and Qarchak prisons until condemnation of the extremely harsh conditions by international media and governments led to her transfer.

During her captivity she has been confined to a 2x2-metre shared cell. There is hardly any light entering. There is no bed. She sleeps on the floor, even during the extremely cold winters which worsen her sciatica. Her colleague who shares the same cell, Mrs Mahvash Sabet, 60, recently suffered a broken hip owing to poor diet, low calcium and no sunshine.

To keep her mind sharp, my mother reads and re-reads the rare books she gets access to, remembers all her family - their phone numbers and important dates and occasions - and studies English with her fellow prisoners. She often composes and memorises poems, and recites them to family members during brief visits.

For three weeks in 2009, American journalist Roxana Saberi shared a cell with my mother and Mrs Sabet.

After her release, Saberi said in an interview: "Fariba and Mahvash were two of the women prisoners I met in Evin who inspired me the most. They showed me what it means to be selfless, to care more about one's community and beliefs than about oneself."

At the time of my mother's arrest, I was out of Iran on my honeymoon. I had left Iran a few years earlier to pursue the university education I had been banned from obtaining by the Iranian government because of my religion. My parents have never been able to meet my wife, nor were they able to attend my wedding in May 2008, which was just under two weeks before my mother's arrest, because their passports were confiscated.

[....]  On rare precious occasions when she is allowed to phone, within those painfully short two-minute conversations, we speak in tones of assurance and safety, conveying love and asking each other ordinary questions.

I miss my mother and it still hurts. But I am so proud she has lived up to her beliefs, has helped others in jail and has remained strong in her faith. On Mother's Day I pay tribute to her.
You can read the rest here.

=>  Christianity is officially recognized and tolerated in Iran, but converting from Islam to a non-Muslim religion is another matter.  (Conversion from a non-Muslim religion to Islam is fine, of course.)  Being accused of apostasy can get you into serious trouble, in ways that range from harassment to imprisonment to possible execution:

Youcef Nadarkhani, an Iranian pastor who in 2010 was found guilty of apostasy and sentenced to death for refusing to recant Christianity, may have received a final execution order, according to the American Center for Law and Justice and Fox News.

Neither Human Rights Watch nor Amnesty International could verify the information for The Huffington Post, but the White House on Thursday afternoon issued a statement condemning the reports and calling on Iran to release Pastor Nadarkhani.

"This action is yet another shocking breach of Iran’s international obligations, its own constitution, and stated religious values," the White House statement read."The United States stands in solidarity with Pastor Nadarkhani, his family, and all those who seek to practice their religion without fear of persecution -- a fundamental and universal human right."

While unable to verify the reports, Faraz Sanei, the Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch, spoke with The Huffington Post in a telephone interview about the uncertain circumstances surrounding Nadarkhani.

"A death sentence that has been sent for implementation by the judiciary would suggest the person is at imminent risk of execution," Sanei said. "If it has been sent to the implementation department, that is very troubling."

Sanei added that if the implementation has indeed been sent, Nadarkhani is "one step closer" to being executed.

[Update 2014: After an international outcry, Nadarkhani was released from prison in 2012, though he continues to be subject to intermittent persecution.]

Islam is the official religion in Iran, and according to the CIA, 98 percent of the country's population is Muslim.

According to Amnesty International, Pastor Naderkhani, 34, became a Christian when he was a teenager and has said he never practiced Islam despite being born to Muslim parents. He has been a pastor for at least 10 years, according to the Christian Post.

In September, the Iranian Supreme Court upheld Naderkhani's 2010 conviction of apostasy after he reportedly refused to recant his Christian faith.
(Updates available via the "Stop the execution of Pastor Nadarkhani in Iran" Facebook group.)

—Jeff Weintraub