Mr. Chair, I appreciate the opportunity to rise and draw attention to the poor state of freedom of religion or belief in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and notably the persecution of its religious minority communities by the Iranian government.
It is with regret that I note the abject failure of the government of Iran to create an environment that is inclusive and respectful of an individual's right to manifest his or her faith freely. It is in fact the state that drives the violations and abuses of Iranians' right to freedom and religion and belief.
Freedom of religion or belief is a universal right. As reflected in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to change religion or belief. It is also a right enshrined in article 23 of Iran's own constitution, which forbids investigation of one's beliefs and harassment based on one's beliefs.
In practice, however, Iran is failing to respect its own domestic and international human rights obligations, including by preventing thousands of its own citizens from freely and openly manifesting their faith. This not only deprives them of their religious freedoms, but is also a central component of their human dignity.
This is especially true for the Baha'is, Christians, as well as Sufi and Sunni Muslims living in Iran. Their persecution remains widespread and acute, often ranging from exclusion from the job market and education to arbitrary imprisonment and the infliction of physical violence. Any social hostility against them is perpetuated and sometimes instigated by a government rhetoric that demeans and wrongly associates minority faith groups with foreign plots.
This only fosters attitudes of mistrust and, in some cases, promotes violence and intimidation against members of religious minority communities. This is perhaps most evident in the case of the Baha'is, who have been actively targeted by the Iranian government for many years and are subject to a litany of discriminatory policies, harassment, arbitrary detention and violence.
Since August, 2014, it is estimated that at least 126 Baha'is had been held in Iranian detention centres. Reports consistently have noted insufficient trial safeguards and inadequate access to legal counsel. Making matters worse, lawyers who had accepted sensitive Baha'i cases were targeted themselves, several ending up in prison or being forced to flee the country.
Members of the Baha'i community are systematically denied access to higher education in Iran, have had raids on their homes and have even had their places of burial desecrated.
Officials have reportedly frequently offered Baha'is an opportunity to avoid these punishments by recanting their faith. However, a central tenet of Baha'i faith is to be true to their faith and not to deny their religion. For this act of defiance, Baha'i youths are denied places at universities, and men and women have continued to languish behind bars for years.
This remains the case for seven imprisoned Baha'i community leaders, arrested under the charge of espionage and threatening national security, when in reality their supposed crime was practising their faith.
The situation in Iran remains likewise challenging for Christians. According to UN figures, roughly 300,000 Christians live in Iran. They, like individuals belonging to a few selected religious minority communities, are afforded a slim degree of official recognition and room to practise their faith, so long as they do not proselytize.
Conversion from Islam, known as apostasy, is illegal in Iran. It is an offence punishable by death. Reports have noted a marked increase in the monitoring and intimidation of Christian communities by Iranian authorities. Officials have raided private worship sessions, frequently confiscate bibles, and physically intimidate converts and lay people. Among them, at least 49 Protestant Christians are currently detained and Iranian security services have stepped up their closures of officially licensed churches and arrests of Christian pastors linked to recent conversions of Islam to Christianity. This has included Iranian-born American pastor, Saeed Abedini, who is serving an eight-year sentence after being convicted as a supposed threat to national security in 2013.
Like their Christian and Bahá’i counterparts, Sufi, Dervish and Sunni Muslims have also seen their space to openly and freely practice their faith continue to shrink. They too find themselves intimidated, monitored and imprisoned by Iranian authorities, again under so-called national security offenses. At least 150 Sunni Muslims are currently detained for convening religious meetings, as well as an estimated 10 Sufi or Dervish Muslims.
Leaders from the Iranian regime's clergy have further incited hostility toward these groups, allegedly claiming they spread Wahhabism or Salafism, linking them to plots of foreign states. They have even produced and aired state-run programs that demonize Sufism.
Altogether, these combined actions create a socially hostile environment for the Sunni, Sufi and Dervish communities.
The challenges faced by individuals belonging to religious minority communities remain daunting. They are up against a government that uses every possible tool at its disposal to control and deliberately rob them of the freedom of religion or belief, using legal and extralegal means.
This systematic discrimination and persecution is unacceptable and I can assure hon. members present that the Government of Canada has not remained silent on this issue. As a country based on pluralism and comprised of a multitude of cultures and faiths, Canada is uniquely positioned to protect and promote freedom of religion or belief. As such, we have made this a key foreign policy priority and established the Office of Religious Freedom, located in the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, or DFATD, to speak out and advocate on behalf of persecuted religious communities worldwide, including those in Iran.
Working closely alongside his colleagues at DFATD, Canada's ambassador for Religious Freedom, Dr. Andrew Bennett, has consistently condemned the unjust actions of the Iranian government against its religious minority communities. He continues to engage with Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, the UN's special rapporteur on the human rights situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and key leaders from Iran's various faith communities to further develop Canada's strategy on addressing the religious freedom and broader human rights situation faced by the Iranian people.
Canada continues to stand beside Iran's oppressed religious minority communities. We will remain a leader in promoting their freedom of religion or belief and for the improvement of Iran's human rights situation writ large.