An Open Letter to the Honorable Rex W. Tillerson
concerning Religious Freedom in Iran

Regarding Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, Chairman of the Guardian Council and the Assembly of Experts

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September 1, 2017

Dear Mr. Secretary,

Thank you for reaffirming our commitment and obligation to recognize and defend the freedom of religion—a fundamental American value and a universal human right.

On August 15th, 2017, following the release of the 2016 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, you noted that “many governments around the world use discriminatory laws to deny their citizens freedom of religion or belief.”

The Islamic Republic of Iran has been designated as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for its systematic violations of religious freedom. As you observed:

In Iran, Baha’is, Christians and other minorities are persecuted for their faith. Iran continues to sentence individuals to death under vague apostasy laws—20 individuals were executed in 2016 on charges that included, ‘waging war against God.’ Members of the Baha’i community are in prison today simply for abiding by their beliefs.

Sadly, President Donald J. Trump’s incitement of religious hatred and violence—his equation of religious belief with terrorism—has eroded respect for the universal principles and freedoms enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations. Instead of condemning the Iranian people and blaming Islam for the scourge of tyranny and terrorism in the Middle East, why not advance the cause of freedom, faith and friendship by addressing the religious hypocrisy of Iran’s leaders?

The State of Religious Freedom in Iran

The 2016 Report notes that Iran’s penal code specifies the death sentence for:

- Moharebeh (“enmity towards or waging war against God”)
- Fisad fil-arz (“corruption on earth, including apostasy and heresy”)
- Sabb al-nabi (“insulting the prophets” or “insulting the sanctities”)

Drawing on the work of Amnesty International and other human rights groups, the 2016 Report provides an overview of religious persecution in Iran.

According to the Iran Prison Atlas data set from United for Iran, there were 31 political prisoners incarcerated on charges of “insulting Islam,” 198 for moharebeh, and 12 for “corruption on earth” and at least 103 members of minority religious groups remained imprisoned for their religious activities. According to the Baha’i International Community (BIC), there were 86 Baha’i prisoners incarcerated at year’s end. According to Christian World Watch Monitor, there were 82 arrests of Christians (including converts) during the year. According to Iran Human Rights Documentation Center at least 261 people remained imprisoned at the end of the year for their membership in or activities on behalf of a minority religious group, including at least 115 Sunnis, 80 Baha'is, 26 Christian converts, 18 Sufis, and 10 Yarsanis.

Of course, religious persecution in Iran is not limited to religious minorities. The Special Court of the Clergy targets Shi’a clerics as well as Sunni and Sufi leaders by charging them with moharebeh.

The Center for Human Rights in Iran reports that Ayatollah Hossein Kazemeini Boroujerdi, is serving an 11-year prison sentence, since 2006, for advocating the separation of religion and politics. Hojjatoleslam Ahmad Montazeri, the son of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, was sentenced for endangering national security by posting an audio recording of his father condemning the 1988 mass execution of political prisoners.

Women and children are particularly vulnerable. In March 2016, Ahmed Shaheed, then UN Special Rapporteur for the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, noted that Iran’s penal code “explicitly stipulates that the value of a woman’s life is equal to half of a man’s.” The penal code also “retains the death penalty for boys of at least 15 lunar years of age and girls of at least 9 lunar years” for hudud crimes, like homicide, adultery or sodomy.” 73 children were executed between 2005 and 2015. 160 are on death row.

The Boroumand Foundation—a leading human rights organization working to end the death penalty in Iran—documents many of these cases of religious violence in the Omid memorial—a list of 19,142 victims of judicial and extrajudicial murder since 1979.

The 2016 Report also draws attention to the daily toll of religious persecution on millions of Iranians subject to a state-sanctioned system of religious and judicial extortion. The state imposes fines and extorts bribes by policing every aspect of life from dress, diet, sports and sex to education, commerce, marriage and prayer. Of course, the persecution is not universal; God’s laws are subject to politics and corruption, mandatory for outsiders, discretionary for insiders.

Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati: The Face of Religious Persecution and Hypocrisy in Iran

Still, for all the harm that the 2016 Report highlights, it ignores a historic anomaly—an eclipse of faith—that has profound implications for religious freedom and human rights in Iran.

In February 2016, on occasion of the 37th anniversary celebrations of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, an American delegation led by Minister Louis Farrakhan, the head of the Nation of Islam, arrived in Iran as guests of the Islamic Republic. Minister Farrakhan was extended all the courtesies reserved for Muslim heads of state, including an audience with no less a figure than Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati.

Ayatollah Jannati casts a long and lethal shadow over Iran. As the chairman of Iran's Guardian Council, the body of six clerics and six

jurists that monitors laws and vets elections for conformity with Islamic principles, he has repeatedly abused his position at the pinnacle of theocracy to incite religious violence.

As early as November 2005, the Ayatollah was dividing Iran by dehumanizing non-Muslims.

Non-Muslims such as Zoroastrians, Christians and Jews cannot be called human beings but are animals who roam the earth and engage in corruption.

In the aftermath of protests following Iran’s 2009 presidential elections, the Ayatollah called for the swift execution of detainees, whom he labeled as “hypocrites.”

God ordered the Prophet Muhammad to brutally slay hypocrites and ill-intentioned people who stuck to their convictions. The Qur’an insistently orders such deaths. May God not forgive anyone showing leniency towards the corrupt on earth.

Given the Ayatollah’s animus towards apostates, heretics and hypocrites, his embrace of Minister Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam opens him and the Guardian Council to the charges of moharrebeh, fisad fil-arz and sabb al-nabi.

  Minister Farrakhan and Ayatollah Jannati, Guardian Council Tehran, Feb. 2016

Minister Farrakhan and Ayatollah Jannati, Guardian Council Tehran, Feb. 2016

Jannati and the Nation of Islam

After his audience with Ayatollah Jannati, Minister Farrakhan confided in Nader Talebzadeh of Iran’s Press TV, director of The Messiah Jesus, that “I felt I was in the presence of divinity.”

Minister Farrakhan is no ordinary religious leader. He is the disciple and successor of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.

In The Theology of Time, a compilation of lectures delivered in 1972, Elijah Muhammad proclaims that:

“I am Elijah of your Bible, I am the Muhammad of your Holy Qur’an; not the Muhammad that was here 1,400 years ago. I am the one of whom the Holy Qur’an is referring.”

The articles of faith of the Nation of Islam call on Elijah’s followers to witness that:

Allah (God) appeared in the person of Master W. Fard Muhammad on July 1930, and that he, Fard Muhammad, was the long-awaited Messiah of the Christians and the Mahdi of the Muslims.

In The True History of Master Fard Muhammad (Allah in Person), Elijah Muhammad elevates Fard Muhammad above all other Shi’a Imams:

“The Twelve major Imams, as they are called in Islam, or in the Arab language, they don’t have this one’s knowledge…they bow down to that One and give praise and honor to him.”

Many American Muslims consider Elijah Muhammad’s claims about Allah, the Prophet and the Mahdi as historical fiction, if not blasphemy.

Given the Islamic Republic’s long courtship of the Nation of Islam, it is inconceivable that Ayatollah Jannati was not briefed about Elijah Muhammad’s teachings.

After the trip to Iran, an editorial in The Final Call, the Nation of Islam’s newspaper, summed up the Minister’s visit:

In Iran, the Minister stood firm on the position that Master Fard Muhammad is the Great Mahdi, the powerful self-guided one prophesized [sic] to bring Islam back to its proper course and to sit down tyrants of the earth.

The Islamic Republic has not officially disputed, contested or rejected any of the American sect’s claims about the Mahdi before, during or after the trip.

The Eclipse of the Mahdi: Article 5 of the Islamic Republic’s Constitution

One would think that in a Shi'a theocracy in which virtually all power and authority flow through the name of the absent Mahdi, the eclipse of the Shi’a Mahdi by an American one would make Ayatollah Jannati’s volte-face untenable.

Article 5 of the Islamic Republic’s constitution states that:

During the absence (ghayba) of his holiness, the Lord of the Age, May God “all mighty” [sic] hasten his appearance, the sovereignty of the command [of God] and religious leadership of the community [of believers] in the Islamic Republic of Iran is the responsibility of the faqih [learned scholar] who is just, pious, knowledgeable about his era, courageous, and a capable and efficient administrator, as indicated in Article 107.

Yet Supreme Leader Ali Khameini—the just and pious faqih—did not dismiss or defrock Jannati for his abrogation of constitutional doctrine. The members of the Council did not resign in protest. The judiciary did not place him under house arrest. State media did not ban his image. Secret societies devoted to the Mahdi did not draw their daggers. No crane hangings.

Despite stereotypes of hardliners as vigilantes and vulgarians, they displayed restraint, manners and even religious tolerance to save the Ayatollah’s face. For once, silence.

Such indulgence was in sharp contrast to the judicial outbursts over the friendship between two Iranian women from different faiths. As chronicled in the 2016 Report and elsewhere, in May 2016, Faezeh Hashemi, the daughter of the late President Hashemi Rafsanjani, was accused of threatening national security for merely having tea with Fariba Kalamabadi, a leader of Iran’s persecuted Baha’i faith. On that occasion, Ayatollah Amoli Larijani, the head of Iran’s judiciary, threatened prosecution on national security grounds, declaring that: “Socializing with them (the Baha’i), especially by relatives of senior clerics and high-ranking officials, is damaging the norms.” Tehran's prosecutor-general, Mohammad Jafar Montazeri added that “Glorifying the Baha’i is a direct dagger pushed into the heart of the Lord of the Age [i.e. the Mahdi].” No less a figure than Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi portrayed the meeting as “a crime aimed at strengthening the enemies of Islam.” He asked: “why have others remained silent?”

  Faezeh Hashemi (in Chador) sitting next to Fariba Kalamabadi Private Residence, Tehran, May 2016

Faezeh Hashemi (in Chador) sitting next to Fariba Kalamabadi Private Residence, Tehran, May 2016

Now consider the case of Marjan Davari—a 50-year old researcher and translator, sentenced to death on March 12, 2017 for spreading corruption on earth and conspiring against the state. She stands accused of spreading the ideas of Eckenkar, a new age spiritual movement founded by Paul Twitchell in 1965. If Davari is executed on charges of spreading corruption on earth—presumably for translating Twitchell’s The Talons of Time—the judiciary will have to try Jannati, and perhaps others, or provide reasons for its partiality towards Elijah Muhammad’s The Theology of Time.

While thousands expire in dungeons of time, for now, the Ayatollah’s star shines ever more brightly in the Islamic Republic’s firmament. Jannati won a seat in the Assembly of Experts, the clerical body charged with selecting Iran's next supreme leader. On May 24th, 2016, clerics claiming to represent almost 55 million Iranian voters, crowned the Ayatollah as their chairman. Despite the thousands of soldiers martyred in the name of the Mahdi, no expert felt compelled to check Jannati’s religious beliefs and freedoms.

None of Iran’s leading clerics and commanders witnessed the price of solemn oaths binding the living to honor the dead: the morgues of time and mirrors of tradition reflecting the face of the Mahdi’s light and love.

Such blight—complicity and duplicity—should put to rest the Saudi myth that Iran is a Shi’a power. Iran’s ruling clerics are followers of Machiavelli, not the Mahdi.

The Universal Equation: Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

As the shadow of God on earth, the late Shah was neither so modern nor so revolutionary as to celebrate the 2500th anniversary of Iranian monarchy with Jannati’s jovial abandon.

If the eclipse of the Mahdi in Iran is such that it has extinguished the divine spark (Farr-i izadi), as witnessed in the 37th anniversary celebrations of the rebirth of Islam as a political abomination, a Shi’a Golem, then it follows that Iran’s self-proclaimed caliphs, the Party of God, can offer the recognition and protection they extend to Americans—the followers of Fard and Elijah Muhammad—to all Iranians, no matter what their religion, including the followers of the Bab and Baha’ullah.

Secretary Tillerson, there can be no compulsion in matters of conscience and religion. The United States and United Nations should call on Iran’s leaders to honor their obligation under Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights lest, as divine usurpers, they be judged as they have judged.

How true, then, the words of Hafiz, the poet of Shiraz:

“It must be that they have no faith in the Day of Judgment that they so brazenly forge and foul the Judge's work.”


Amir Soltani (Sheikholeslami) is the co-author of Zahra’s Paradise and a board member of PEN Center, USA.


To visit the Omid memorial and call for the abolition of the death penalty in Iran, please visit the Boroumand Foundation's project.

To visit the Iran Prison Atlas and learn about political prisoners, please visit United4Iran.org.

To learn more about the Nation of Islam, please visit noi.org.