The White House is expressing concern about the situation of religious minorities in Iran and is calling on the Iranian government to respect religious freedom. The call comes after a statement by the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion, Asma Jahangir, in which she describes an official Iranian government letter that reportedly tells government agencies to collect information -- "in a highly confidential manner" -- about Baha'i members. The special rapporteur is concerned that the information gained from such monitoring will be used to persecute and discriminate against Baha'i members.
PRAGUE, March 30, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion, Asma Jahangir, said last week that the secret letter was sent on October 29 by the chairman of the Command Headquarters of the Armed Forces in Iran to the country's Ministry of Information, the Revolutionary Guard, and the police.
Jahangir said in the letter Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei makes a request for the Command Headquarters to identify Baha'is and to monitor their activities.
Jahangir did not say how she obtained the letter.
Identify And Monitor
She said she is highly concerned by the information and noted that "such monitoring constitutes an impermissible and unacceptable interference with the rights of members of religious minorities."
The statement has led to growing concern for the some 300,000 Baha'is who live in Iran. They make up Iran's largest religious minority but their faith, which was founded in Iran, in not recognized in the constitution.
The situation for Baha'is has worsened in Iran since the establishment of the Islamic Republic.
Human Rights activists say that since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran some 200 Baha'is have been executed, many have been imprisoned for their religious beliefs, and Baha'i education classes have been disrupted.
Many see theological conflicts with Islam as the main motive for the persecution of Baha'is. Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad is "the end of prophesy." The Baha'i faith, founded several centuries after Islam, states that divine revelation will continue.
The UN, the United States, EU countries, and Human Rights groups have, on several occasions, criticized the treatment of Baha'i followers in Iran.
On March 28, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the U.S. government will continue to monitor the situation of Baha'is in Iran very closely.
"[Asma Jahangir] has expressed her concern that the situation with regard to religious minorities in Iran, the Baha'i, is, in fact, worsening," he said. "We share those concerns. We call on the regime in Iran to respect the religious freedom of all its minorities, and to ensure that these minorities are free to practice their religious beliefs without discrimination or fear."
The Baha'i International Community also says it shares the concern of the UN special rapporteur and the United States about the welfare of Baha'is in Iran.
Baha'i Community Worried
The representative of the Baha'i International Community at the UN in Geneva, Diane Ala'i, tells RFE/RL that the Iranian government action is unprecedented.
"They have always controlled Baha'is but this is beyond control; they are gathering the names of all Baha'is all over the country," Ala'i said. "We don't know why they are doing this now."
Ala'i adds that the move comes in the wake of mounting attacks by conservative dailies against the Baha'i faith.
"From October to now, numerous articles have been published in the daily 'Kayhan' against the Baha'i faith; they are all defamatory with incorrect information and, as you know, [Iranian Baha'is] have no right to defend themselves [against the assaults and provocations]," she said.
The UN's Jahangir has warned that the latest development is an indication of a general deterioration in the situation of religious minorities in Iran. In February, The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) also expressed deep concern about the "worsening" situation for religious minorities in Iran, including for Baha'is and Christians.
The USCIRF said there has also been greater intolerance against Muslims who disagree with the official interpretation of Islam or do not espouse the ideology of the Islamic Revolution.
The USCIRF says "inflammatory statements by political and religious leaders and an increase of harassment, imprisonment, and physical attacks against these groups" are signs of renewed oppression.
It also points to government clashes with Sufi Muslims and an increased atmosphere of fear and intimidation among Iran's Jewish community.
Iranian officials have, in the past, insisted that recognized religious minorities enjoy equal rights with Muslims.
The constitution of the Islamic Republic recognizes only Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism as official religions. On March 17, Iran's official News Agency reported that a group of Iranian lawmakers representing religious minorities at the parliament criticized "the propaganda campaign against Iran" especially regarding the violation of the rights of religious minorities.
They said in a statement that "religious minorities and Muslims residing in Iran, enjoy equal freedom" and that after the revolution they have been subject to no aggression on their lives or property.
Tehran has not reacted to the UN and U.S. concern over the treatment of Baha'is in Iran.
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