Iran’s Supreme Leader Forbids Discrimination Against Minorities in Rare Outreach to Sunnis
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has expressed opposition to “discrimination and inequality” against Iranian minorities in response to a plea from the country’s most senior Sunni cleric.
“In accordance with religious teachings and the Constitution, all the institutions of the Islamic Republic have a duty to refrain from any discrimination or inequality towards Iranians from any ethnicity, race or faith,” said the ayatollah in response to a letter from Sunni cleric Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi.
The rare outreach to Iran’s Sunni community, conveyed by Khamenei’s chief assistant Mohammad Mohammadi Golpayegani on August 22, 2017, was published on September 6.
Molavi Abdolhamid, the Friday prayer leader of Zahedan, the capital of Sistan and Baluchistan, had written a letter to Khamenei on August 2, 2017, calling for an end to “38 years of inequality” for Sunnis since the 1979 Iranian revolution.
In his response, Khamenei added: “We all firmly believe that we should stand side by side in a solid, unified front to strive for the glory and honor of Islamic Iran and should not allow the enemies of this land and their malicious saboteurs to divide us.”
Molavi Abdolhamid thanked Khamenei for his response, adding: “This order imposes a religious and legal duty on all civil and military officials and institutions of the Islamic republic to look equally upon all ethnic groups and religions for the sake of justice.
“In the sensitive times facing the region and the country, the wise and historic order of the enlightened leader… will discourage those who wish harm on Islamic Iran and bring joy to the dear nation of Iran,” he wrote.
Dozens of Iranian Sunnis have been detained on suspicion of having alleged links with the attackers who carried out the deadly terrorist attacks in Tehran on June 7, 2017. The attacks, which killed 18 people and injured 50, were carried out by supporters of the group that calls itself the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, IS and ISIL.
In July 2017, the Council of Sunni Theologians of Iran, representing clerics based in the country’s northwestern Kurdish-populated provinces, suspended operations in response to the ongoing climate of intimidation and fear perpetuated by the Intelligence Ministry since the attacks.
Despite accounting for an estimated 10 percent of Iran’s population, no Iranian Sunni has ever been appointed to a ministerial position in government since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979.
Article 12 of Iran’s Constitution specifies the rights afforded to the officially recognized Sunni branches of Islam, a minority in Shia-dominated Iran: “…Other Islamic schools, including the Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki, Hanbali, and Zaydi are to be accorded full respect, and their followers are free to act in accordance with their own jurisprudence in performing their religious rites. These schools enjoy official status in matters pertaining to religious education, affairs of personal status (marriage, divorce, inheritance, and wills) and related litigation in courts of law.”
According to Article 26: “The formation of parties, societies, political or professional associations, as well as religious societies, whether Islamic or pertaining to one of the recognized religious minorities, is permitted provided they do not violate the principles of independence, freedom, national unity, the criteria of Islam, or the basis of the Islamic republic. No one may be prevented from participating in the aforementioned groups, or be compelled to participate in them.”
Molavi Abdolhamid, who heads the Dar al-Oloum Sunni seminary in Zahedan, has been a moderate advocate of equality for Iran’s Sunni community.
In February 2017, he wrote a letter to Khamenei in response to rumors that the executions of Sunni death row prisoners convicted of drug crimes were set to be expedited in Sistan and Baluchistan.
Executions in several Sunni-majority cities, he wrote, “strengthen the possibility that the judiciary chief’s secret order truly exists” and therefore “requires the wise leader’s [Khamenei’s] prudent and fatherly intervention to calm the worries of the Sunni community.”
Among Iran’s poorest provinces, Sistan and Baluchistan maintains one of the highest execution rates per capita in the country. High unemployment has drawn the inhabitants of the Sunni-majority region towards illegally trafficking drugs into Iran from bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan.