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Allow Sunnis to worship freely in Iran – Human Rights Watch

Ebrahim Moosa – Cii News | 09 Muharram 1435/13 November 2013

International human rights advocacy organisation Human Rights Watch(HRW) has renewed a call on Iranian authorities to lift restrictions on Sunni Muslims to gather and pray freely in their own mosques in Tehran and other areas of the country.

“Sunni’s have since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979 not been able to construct their own mosques, which is actually a stunning fact,” said Faraz Sanei, Iran researcher with Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division in an interview with Cii Radio.

The expert said Sunnis had applied to the authorities for permission to construct their own Masaajid in Tehran on numerous occasions, but had seldom received any positive responses to their requests.

“Iran’s Sunni population(of approximately 9 million) is concentrated primarily in the North East, South East and South West of the country – essentially on the periphery of the country. As far as we know there aren’t that many restrictions in Sunni majority areas in terms of Sunni’s being able to construct their own mosques and practice their faith relatively freely. The restrictions are in the capital primarily. And what these restrictions mean is that when Sunni’s don’t have the ability to construct their own mosques, they instead have to rent out spaces in commercial areas, halls etc. that are not mosques architecturally. They rent these places out and during Eid or Friday prayers, they gather there to worship.”

Sanei said problems have been recurring for Sunni Muslims at these improvised prayer spaces over recent years where they have been harassed and prevented from even gathering at these venues on important religious occasions by security and intelligence officials.

During the early morning hours of October 16, 2013, for instance, dozens of uniformed and plain-clothes security agents surrounded Sadeghiyeh Mosque in northwest Tehran, one of the largest and most important Sunni prayer sites in Tehran province, and prevented Sunni worshipers from entering the building to mark Eid-ul Adha, a Sunni worshipper and former member of parliament told Human Rights Watch. Sunni activists also reported that security forces prevented worshipers from entering another prayer site, in Saadatabad, in northern Tehran. Worshipers in other parts of the capital apparently entered prayer sites freely and worshiped without hindrance.

Jalal Jalalizadeh, a Tehran resident who represented the northwestern, Kurdish-majority city of Sanandaj in parliament during Mohammad Khatami’s presidency, said that security forces prevented him and other Sunni worshipers from entering Sadeghiyeh Mosque, refusing to give a reason.

The Persian-language site Islah Web, the website of the Gathering to Call and Reform Iran, a Sunni group, reported that on October 15, Tehran police had summoned a board member of Sadeghiyeh Mosque and informed him that Sunnis could not use the site for prayers during Eid al-Adha.

“(These restrictions) are very troubling,” Sanei added, “given that the Iranian government considers itself an Islamic Republic and considers itself to be the protector of freedoms of Muslims worldwide”.

He said HRW found the restrictions perplexing, given that Iran’s constitution itself accords Sunni Muslims full respect, and affords their followers the freedom to act in accordance with their own jurisprudence in performing their religious rites.

Iranian law also gives Muslims following the Hanafi, Shafii, Maliki, and Hanbali schools of Sunni Islam “official status in matters pertaining to religious education, affairs of personal status (marriage, divorce, inheritance, and wills) and related litigation in courts of law.”

Sanei denied that HRW was politicizing the issue of Sunni worship, instead arguing that the body was simply holding the Iranian government responsible for upholding its own stated ideals.

“The Iranian government has a particular sensitivity to what they would consider Salafis, or Wahabis or Jihadis. There are some areas of the country where there have been ‘terrorist’ attacks by groups who allege they are part of a larger Jihadi structure. So there is some legitimate concern on the part of the Iranian government to ensure that extremist groups do not use violence and do not use terrorism inside Iranian territory. But, as far as we know – these individuals who are inside Iran, these Sunnis who are trying to gather, are not in any way linked to any of these groups. And in fact, the Iranian government has not even accused them of being linked to these problematic groups. They are Sunni who are Iranian, who just want to be able to pray freely in Tehran”.

While in its latest advisory, the human rights body only chose to highlight the restrictions on Sunni worship by the authorities, the researcher claimed that there were many other grievances against the Iranian government that have been articulated by Sunni Muslims.

Some of these gripes involved restrictions on Sunnis holding high level leadership positions in the country.”Since the establishment of the Iranian Islamic Republic, there has not been one single Sunni governor – even in areas with a significant Sunni majority,” Sanei said.

There have also been reported cases of interference by the government in the syllabi of Sunni Madressahs.

Sanei believes the case of restrictions on Iran’s Sunnis is not a unique instance of persecution, but should rather be viewed within the wider context of the Republic’s treatment of all its religious minorities.

“This is a grave situation in many ways. Bahais have been severely targeted..Persian speaking Christian minorities also suffer many restrictions”.

Human Rights Watch proffered optimism that recent meetings between Sunni leaders and Iranian government officials would reap dividends in lifting restrictions on Sunni religious freedom in the country. It also hailed a 10-point statement issued by new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during his electoral campaign that guaranteed equal protection of the law to all Iranians, regardless of ethnicity and religion.

At the same time, it cautioned the value of action-less rhetoric.

“Rouhani promises to win the trust of religious minorities, but those promises don’t mean much if security agents are stopping Sunni Muslims from praying in their own mosques,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch in a press release.


Listen to the interview with HRW here

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