Religious Tolerance and Intolerance of Jews and Baha’is in Iran

Compiled, Written and Annotated by Kevin Chen.
For the course: HI 510 Topics in Legal History


Iranian Jews attend morning service in Tehran Synagogue on December 27, 2011.

Shrine of Bab, Haifa, Israel.

Shrine of Bab, Haifa, Israel.





This research guide discusses the tolerance and intolerance of Jews and Baha’is’ in Iran after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The two religious minorities constantly need to deal with discrimination from not only the government, but also the Shiite majority. However, there is a misinterpretation of Iran treating recognized religious minorities, especially their protection of Jews. There are estimates of around ten to thirty thousand Jews living in Iran today, where Iran houses the largest Jewish population in the Middle East, excluding Israel. In the western media, the misconception is that the Islamic government is openly hostile against the Jews; but this not the case. Iranian politicians and religious leaders have constantly pointed out they are against Zionist Jews, Jews who support the state of Israel and a Jewish home, and ordinary Jews are accepted and protected by the government.

On the contrary to Jewish recognition in the Iranian Constitution, the Baha’is have faced a completely different response from the Islamic Republic. The Baha’i faith is a relatively new religion created in the 19th century in Persia that emphasized on the spiritual unity of mankind, as well as the religious history of divine messengers – Moses, Jesus, Mohammad, also Indian religion like Krishna and Budda. From the perspective of the Islamic government, any religion created after Mohammad is seen as false and Iran has not failed to hide any evidence of Baha’i discrimination in education, jobs or religious observations. I will be comparing between the treatment between Jews and Baha’is in Iran, by examining the political and religious statements made by Iranian leaders as well as specific cases dealing with these two religious minorities.

One of the major sources I will be using is Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Government. Khomeini’s writings and lectures outline the fundamental basis of the Iranian Islamic government, its functions – including the legislative, executive and judicial, and the process of which it functions. Khomeini also heavily criticizes religious minorities, notably Christians and Jews, but this hatred would reverse itself as Khomeini gave a legal recognition and protection for those religious minorities. The interesting analysis here would be to examine why would Khomeini shift his view on some religious minorities (Jews, Christians) but not others (Baha’is, Sunni Muslims to an extent)?

Another important source I will be using is the Iranian Constitution and its overall influence on the religious minorities in Iran. The Constitution states: “Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian Iranians are the only recognized religious minorities, who, within the limits of the law, are free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies, and to act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education.” However, Baha’is and Jews normally do not enjoy such religious freedom in Iran and I will be observing specific case studies on those situations that would deny religious practices indirectly.


Kakh Dadgostari Tehran (The Courthouse of Tehran). This building currently serves as the Supreme Court for the Iranian Islamic Government. The Iranian Constitution states the Judiciary is “an independent power”. A majority of religious disputes or accusations are settled here. However, many of the Court rulings are not publicly released and most of the decisions are based on speculations and government released information.


Annotated Bibliography

Khomeini, Ruhollah. Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini. Translated by Hamid Algar. Berkeley. Mizan Press. 1981.

This book is written by Ayatollah Khomeini, the first Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic. The Islamic Government first originated in a series of lectures given in Najaf between January 21 and February 8, 1970. Those lectures were recorded and transcribed by a student, and then published in book form. The Islamic Government discusses the establishment and the maintenance of Islamic political institutions as well as the role of religious scholars (the fuqaha) to bring about an Islamic state – including legislative, executive and judicial positions within. Of course, Khomeini also examines the role of recognized religious minorities, especially on Jews and Christians.

[Letter] Concerning the Baha’i question. Dr. Seyyed Mohammad Golpaygani [Secretary of the Supreme Revolutionary Council] to Head of the Office of Esteemed Leader [Khamenei]. The Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council. 25 February 1991.

This letter is a conversation between the Secretary of the Supreme Revolutionary Council, Dr. Seyyed Mohammad Golpaygani, and the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, about the Islamic Republic’s policy on the “Baha’i question”. In the outline created by Golpaygani, Baha’is can practice some rights, such as obtaining a job or having an education, but is mostly restricted in practicing their religion or pronouncing their religious views in public (or private) spheres.

Report to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights by the U.N. Special Representative for Iran, UN Document E/CN.4/1993/4/1, dated 28 January 1993. Published February 22, 1993.

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights has published a confidential Iranian government document, which in effect, provides a blueprint for destroying the Baha’i community. The Commission addresses the likely actions that the Islamic Republic has taken to limit the rights of the Baha’is, such as denying employment, education and religious practices.

Iranian Millenarianism and Democratic Thought. International Journal Middle East Studies. 1992. Juan R. I. Cole. 1 – 24.

Cole explores the circumstances under which the Baha’i prophet Bahaullah developed a commitment to representative government in the decades before the revolution and to discover whether Bahaullah’s social teachings and his religious ones are related in some way.

“Justifications” of the Persecution. Baha’i International Community. 2000.

Principle charges advanced by the Government are that Baha’is are supporters of the Pahlavi regime and the late Shah of Iran; that they collaborated with SAVAK, the secret police; and that the Baha’i Faith is a political organization opposed to the present Iranian Government. The Islamic government also label Baha’is as heretics or enemies of Islam, agents of Zionism, and are involved with prostitution, adultery and immortality.

Nash, Geoffrey. Iran’s Secret Pogrom: The Conspiracy to Wipe Out the Baha’is.  Suffolk. 1982

Nash argues the Baha’is fared better under Mohammad Reza Shah as Baha’is were apolitical but supportive of the Shah’s secular education programs. Under the Shah’s secular rule, religious minorities tend to fair better, this was especially true for Baha’is.

Loeb, Laurence D. Prestige and Piety in the Iranian Synagogue. The George Washington University Institute for Ethnographic Research. 1978.

Loeb gives a brief background on the Jewish history and origins from the beginning of the Persian empire. Most of the Jews settled in Shirazi, one of the Iranian cities that existed since its creation. Loeb argues the synagogue was the only “legal” Jewish social institution as Jews throughout their history in Iran has faced discrimination. Loeb also describes the social ranking and structure of how Shirazi Jews operated, among each other and with the Islamic Republic.

Loeb, Laurence D. The Religious Dimension of Modernization Among the Jews of Shiraz. In Bonine, Michael E. and Keddie, Nikki R. (editors). Modern Iran The Dialectics of Continuity and Change. State University of New York Press. 1981.

In this chapter, Loeb goes into detail on Jewish toleration during Mohammad Reza Shah’s reign, as well as a brief history leading up to the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Loeb argues the modernization of Iran in the 20th century, especially after World War II, has brought significant attention to Jews around the world, and Iran was one of them. The Jews benefited greatly from the Shah’s secular policies on education and religious freedom and many had served in high official positions in the Shah’s court. Loeb further illustrates that the secularization has uplifted Shirazi Jews, where the majority of Iranian Jews lived, both politically and economically, although Jews still faced discrimination from Muslims majorities primarily because of their wealth status.

Menashri, David. The Jews of Iran: Between the Shah and Khomeini. In Sander L. Gilman and Steven T. Katz (eds) Anti-Semitism in Times of Crisis. New York & London: New York University Press. 1991.

In this article, Menashri discusses the process of “Islamization” on minorities, notably the Iranian Jews. To an extent, Menashri points out the Jews have fared better in their religious practice than under Mohammad Reza Shah. This was because religion is promoted in the Islamic Republic more so than in the Shah’s secular reforms, while the Shah had disregarded the importance of religious observations. Indeed, Jewish holidays and prayers were mostly left untouched by the Islamic Government, excluding the occasional Muslim clerics preaching sermons in synagogues.

Fassihi, Farnaz. Iran’s Unlikely TV Hit: Show Sympathetic to Plight of Jews During the Holocaust Draws Millions Each Week. Wall Street Journal. September 7. 2007.

In this article, Fassihi talks about a government funded TV film, named “Zero Degree Turn”, that is based on the plight of German Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. In this scenario, an Iranian man met a French Jewish woman escape the Nazi detention camps and Iranian diplomats helped the the woman forge Iranian passports to flee France. This is especially interesting as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had previously denied the Holocaust and was a ploy created by the Western nations to help Israel and Zionists.

Chehabi, Houchang. Religious Apartheid in Iran. The Middle East Institute Viewpoints: The Iranian Revolution at 30. 119-121.

This article by Chehabi argues a religious paradox among Sunni Muslims than Christians or Jews in Iran. From the Iranian Constitution of 1906, Sunni Muslims faced more discrimination than Jews or Christians because the Islamic Republic only officially allows Shiite mosques and “invites” Sunni Muslims to attend Shiite prayer, an option they do not find attractive.

Iranian Goverment Constitution, English Text. Iranian Goverment Constitution, English Text. Accessed November 30, 2016.

In the general principle of article 13, it states: “Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian Iranians are the only recognized religious minorities, who, within the limits of the law, are free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies, and to act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education.” The Iranian constitution, since its creation in 1979, is based on the principles Ayatollah Khomeini laid out in his writings and lectures, Islamic Government. For the rights of recognized religious minorities, the constitution explicitly stated their protection as well as performing their religious rites and ceremonies.

Brookshaw, Dominic Parviz, and Seena B. Fazel, eds. The Baha’is of Iran Socio-historical Studies. New York, NY: Routledge, 2008.

This book covers the Baha’i community in Iran, who are also the country’s largest non-Muslim religious minority. It contains a collection of essays that discusses the social and historical development of the Baha’i community in shaping modern Iran. This book will be of interest to students and scholars of Iranian studies, Middle Eastern studies and comparative religion, and with many chapters authored by leading academic literature on the Baha’i faith, and in the study of modern Iran in general.

Afshari, Reza. Human Rights in Iran: The Abuse of Cultural Relativism. University of Pennsylvania Press. 2001.

This book illustrates the human rights violations of the Islamic Government of Iran in their treatment of religious minorities, unfair due process, and the freedom of conscience and thought. I will mostly be focusing on how the United Nations have observed and responded the human rights violation of Jews and Baha’is. In different periods of time in post-Revolution Iran, the Iranian government has opened up to U.N. observation of the country itself, ranging from economics to social issues. Undoubtedly, the U.N. has been critical of Iran’s treatment of these minorities and regularly condemned the Islamic government.

Sanasarian, Eliz. Religious Minorities in Iran. Cambridge University Press. 2000.

This book explores the political and ideological relationship between non-Muslim religious minorities in Iran and the state during the formative years of the Islamic Republic to the present day. Sanasarian analyzes the history and experiences of Armenians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Jews, Zoroastrians, Baha’is and Iranian Christian converts, and describes how these communities have responded to state policies regarding minorities. She has based her findings from personal interviews with members of these communities, as well as analyzing primary documents.