Criminalizing Blasphemy: Implications for Iran’s Religious Minorities
On 8 May 2023, the Iranian authorities executed Yousef Mehrad and Sadrolla Fazeli Zare for blasphemy. The two men were reportedly involved in a channel on secure messaging app Telegram, which criticized Islam and its prophets. Iran is one of a few countries in the world where sāb-al-nabi (insulting the prophet) is punishable by the death penalty.
Although executions for blasphemy are uncommon, the criminalization of blasphemy under Iran’s Penal Code is acutely concerning for religious minorities. Such laws persecute both Iran’s officially recognised religions – Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians – as well as atheists and non-recognized religious minorities such as Bahá’ís, Sabean-Mandaeans, and Yarsanis.
Mofsed-e-filarz (spreading corruption on earth) and hiraba (enmity against God) are other charges frequently made against so-called ‘blasphemers’. As well as the executions of Mehrad and Fazeli Zare, other high-profile blasphemy sentences include a five-year jail term for Mohsen Namjoo, who allegedly ridiculed the Quran in a song, and a death sentence for blogger and photographer Soheil Arabi for Facebook posts that were reportedly offensive to the Prophet. Arabi now lives in enforced exile within Iran, while Namjoo lives in self-imposed exile in New York City.
Only a couple of years ago, in 2021, Iran adopted amendments to its Penal Code which further curb the human rights of religious minorities – particularly the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion and belief: articles 499 and 500 bis. Under Article 499 bis, anyone who insults Iranian ethnicities, divine religions or Islamic schools of thought ‘with the intent to cause violence or tensions in the society, or with the knowledge that such [consequences] will follow’ can face punishment ranging from a monetary fine to a prison sentence.
The vague wording and unclear scope of this article give the Iranian authorities inordinate power to apply these laws at their discretion and to misuse the law in a discriminatory way, subjecting religious minorities to arbitrary arrests, intimidation and harassment. Moreover, restrictions to the right to freedom of expression are only lawful when necessary to achieve certain aims, which include respecting the rights of others and protecting national security.
The desire to protect religion from criticism is not a permitted ground for restrictions, making the severe punishments mandated by Article 499 bis illegal under international human rights law. This includes the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Iran has been party since 1975. Under international human rights law, restrictions on the right to freedom of expression must be prescribed by law, pursue a legitimate aim, and be necessary and proportional. Article 499 bis fails to meet any of these requirements.
Likewise, Article 500 bis also makes religious minorities more vulnerable to persecution. Under this provision, a person may be prosecuted if they are perceived to engage in ‘any deviant educational or proselytising activity that contradicts or interferes with the sacred law of Islam’. In other words, anyone who promotes or shares beliefs other than Islam may be prosecuted. This violates international human rights standards, including articles 18 and 19 of the ICCPR, which hold that everyone has the freedom to manifest one’s ‘religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching’ and the freedom ‘to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds’. These provisions have a chilling effect on freedom of expression. They might force believers of minority religions and non-believers to adopt a state-sanctioned belief out of fear of criminal charges.
Regarded as a ‘deviant sect’ of Islam by the Iranian regime, followers of the Bahá’í faith are already one of the most severely persecuted communities in Iran. They regularly face arbitrary arrest and detention for the promotion and even mere expression of their religion. Now, they are effectively criminalized under Article 500 bis. The vague and sweeping nature of the provision only widens the scope for arbitrary detention.
Although Iran legally recognizes the existence of Christians, it is illegal for Muslims to convert to another religion. Christian converts were in the past frequently convicted under charges of ‘apostasy’ before international condemnation forced the Iranian government to change its approach. Human rights lawyer Hossein Ahmadiniaz argues that the government is weaponizing Article 499 bis and Article 500 bis as a new tool to ‘justify [its] violent treatment of converts and other unrecognised minorities.’
Iran must repeal its anti-blasphemy legislation and introduce specific anti-discrimination laws to protect minority groups, including those who are discriminated against on the basis of their religion. In a country known for its diversity, religious pluralism should be celebrated and protected under the law, not suffocated.