Special Report: Sunni Clerics in the Crosshairs of Islamic Republic Repression

Religious Leaders of Minority Communities Are Arrested, Imprisoned, Defrocked for Supporting Protesters

August 15, 2023 – Religious leaders of the Sunni Muslim communities in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan province and in the Kurdish provinces of the country are being increasingly targeted by Islamic Republic authorities for persecution, arrest, and imprisonment because of their peaceful criticism of the state’s violent repression.

“Iranian authorities are jailing and defrocking religious leaders of the Sunni communities for speaking out against the state’s killings and arrests of protesters,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).

“Sunni clerics in Iran have committed no illegal act other than speaking openly about the state’s violent repression of the people in their communities—and that is a crime in the Islamic Republic,” Ghaemi said.

While religious and ethnic minorities in the Islamic Republic have long been oppressed, the state’s targeting of Sunni clerics intensified after anti-government protests swept across Iran in the wake of the September 2022 death in state custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Jina Amini.

Many Sunni clerics spoke out strongly against the state’s violence against peaceful protesters. While state security forces killed over 500 protesters across the country and arrested approximately 20,000 people from all ethnic and religious backgrounds, Baluchis and Kurds bore the brunt of the state’s lethal crackdown, with the highest number of casualties taking place in Sistan and Baluchistan province and in the Kurdish areas of the country, respectively.

Sunni clerics have also criticized the state’s disproportionate use of the death penalty against ethnic minority communities such as Baluchis and Kurds—including its heavy use for drug offenses, which violates international standards that allow capital punishment only for the “most serious” crimes, which do not include drug offenses.

In addition, the clerics have spoken out against the indiscriminate shooting by state border guards of couriers in both the Baluchi and Kurdish areas who sell goods over the border.

As a result, these religious leaders have become targets for heightened persecution by a government that sees any peaceful dissent as a potentially existential challenge to be crushed—especially when the criticism comes from highly respected figures in their respective communities.

Iran is majority Shia Muslim, and is ruled by Shia clerics who have made Shiism the official religion of the state. Religious minorities in the country, which include not only Sunni Muslims, but also Christians, Baha’is, Zoroastrians, Jews, the Gonabadi Sufi community, and others have long been persecuted and discriminated against in the Islamic Republic.

Religious and ethnic identities in Iran overlap, intensifying the intersectional discrimination these communities face. Sistan and Baluchistan is predominantly Sunni Muslim, but also predominantly ethnic Baluchi, and Kurds, who are the largest ethnic minority in western Iran, are predominantly Sunni.

But in the wake of the most severe protests the Islamic Republic has faced in decades, the state’s repression and persecution has worsened. The government has moved to crush any significant dissent, and the Sunni clerics, who have openly criticized the state’s brutal tactics, are now in their crosshairs.

Wave of Arrests of Sunni Clerics in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan Province

The intensity of the state’s lethal crackdown against protests in Sistan and Baluchistan province was unmatched anywhere else in the country. As peaceful demonstrations broke out across the country in September 2022, protesters in Sistan and Baluchistan were essentially met by death squads—during the “Bloody Friday” massacre in Zahedan on September 30, 2022, Islamic Republic security forces killed more than 100 protesters.

Since that time, even as protests quieted in much of the rest of the country due to the state’s brutal assault on protesters, demonstrations after Friday prayers continued weekly in Zahedan for more than 40 weeks.

Baluchi Sunni clerics have also spoken out against the government’s executions, largely for drug-related crimes, which have disproportionally affected the Baluchi community. While the Baluchi ethnic minority comprises about five percent of Iran’s total population, it accounts for approximately 20 percent of the reported executions.

Mowlana Abdolhamid:

Mowlana Abdolhamid, the Friday prayer leader of Zahedan and de facto Sunni leader of the Baluchi community, has regularly criticized the state’s violent repression of protests in the province in his Friday sermons. For example, on April 11, 2023, he held a reception for the families of dozens of protesters killed by Islamic Republic forces on “Bloody Friday” in Zahedan, where he stated: “We’re proud of the injured, and the families of the martyrs of these incidents. Everyone has been patient after these incidents and we wanted to seek justice through legal means. If the law does not address our demands, at least there’s God and God will address our rights. The Almighty is fair and will seek justice for those who have been killed or injured unjustly.”

During Mowlana Abdolhamid’s sermon at Zahedan’s Friday prayers on April 21, 2023, he said:

“Not only the perpetrators should be punished but also those who issued the orders [to kill protesters in Sistan and Baluchistan province since September 2022] … we will not retreat an inch in seeking justice.”

He has also criticized the wave of executions in Sistan and Baluchistan province. In his sermon on May 4, 2023, he said: “Where in Baluchistan have you created jobs that today you are executing people [for drug trafficking]? What has the government done for the people? Most people turn to drug trafficking because they’re hungry and don’t have jobs; why do you execute them? You neither created jobs in this province nor allowed them to study. Your only art is to execute people, nothing more.”

At Mowlana Abdolhamid’s sermon on June 2, 2023, he said:

“The executions that took place in the 1980s are shocking,” in reaction to a recent confession by a former Evin Prison director regarding the mass executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988. He said: “Governments come and go, and no regime remains forever. You should stand by the people…. Everyone is thinking about plundering the country, and many have become rich while the majority of the people have become poor.”

On June 14, 2023, the Iranian authorities canceled Mowlana Abdolhamid’s planned pilgrimage to Mecca.

In June and July 2023, security forces detained at least seven close associates of Mowlana Abdolhamid, including his grandson. Those seven are still detained, even though charges have yet to be issued.

On July 9, 2023, the hardline Kayhan newspaper accused Mowlana Abdolhamid of “supporting the recognition of the Zionist regime (Israel) and negotiating with it, as well as supporting the Zionist Baha’is, which shows he is only a pawn.” On July 8, the paper accused the cleric of supporting Baluchi separatists. He had not yet been arrested as of early August, but such accusations may be laying the groundwork for future state persecution.

Abdolalim Esmailzahi, son Mowlana Abdolhamid, was reportedly interrogated for several hours in the IRGC Intelligence Organization on August 2, 2023. He was ordered to return on August 5. Any charges against him have not been revealed.

Mowlawi Abdolmajid Moradzahi:

Baluchi Sunni cleric Mowlawi Abdolmajid Moradzahi has been in detention in a solitary cell since his arrest on January 30, 2023, and Haalvsh, a Baluchi news organization, reports that he has been subjected to torture in Vakilabad Prison in Mashhad, Khorasan Razavi province. He is banned from visitations and phone contacts.

He has been charged with “disturbing public opinion and speaking with foreign media” for giving interviews to foreign media about protests in Sistan and Baluchistan province. As of August 4, 2023, he was still in detention.

There is no information regarding any lawyer or any trial set, and the case seems to be in limbo. The Sunni cleric’s family have written an open letter to international organizations seeking help in securing his release.

Mowlawi Ebrahim Hassan-Zahi:

Baluchi cleric Mowlawi Ebrahim Hassan-Zahi, 25, was arrested by security agents on his way home from Makki Mosque in Zahedan on February 25, 2023. He has been held illegally and reportedly subjected to torture.

On May 20, 2023, an informed source told Haalvsh Baluchi news agency: “He is now in Zahedan Central Prison in solitary confinement, under such severe torture that his skin has been completely damaged…” He was still in detention as of August 9, 2023.

Mowlawi Amanollah Saadi:

An instructor at the Dar al-Oloum seminary school in Zahedan, Mowlawi Amanollah Saadi was arrested in early April 2023 by security agents, and remains in detention, with no further information regarding charges or other aspects of case status.

Mowlawi Abdolaziz Omarzahi:

A lecturer at the Makki seminary school in Zahedan, Sistan and Baluchistan province, Mowlawi Abdolaziz Omarzahi, was arrested by Intelligence Ministry agents on April 30, 2023. He is still in detention, and no charges have been reported as of yet.

Mowlawi Mohammad Tayyeb Mollazahi:

On June 16, 2023, authorities canceled the planned pilgrimage to Mecca of outspoken Sunni cleric Mowlawi Mohammad Tayyeb Mollazahi, the Friday prayer leader of Iranshahr, in Sistan and Baluchistan province.

On June 23, 2023, state security agents arrested Hafez Kamran Salemizahi and Mowlawi Nazir Bakhshzahi, two teachers at the Mafatih al-Oloum Seminary in Rasak, Sistan and Baluchistan province. Farzad Dehghani, a student at the seminary, was also arrested. All three were still in detention as of August 9, 2023.

Mowlana Mohammad Osman:

In his sermon on August 11, Mowlana Mohammad Osman, Friday prayer leader of Khash, Sistan and Baluchestan province, said: “The executions will have irreparable consequences for society and many orphan children and women will be left without a guardian, which endangers the future of society and individuals.

Instead of executing people, they should be given time to stop buying and selling drugs and find another job, and the government should provide the opportunity to create jobs and deal with the problems of unemployment and lack of livelihood.”

Mowlana Mohammad Hossein Gorgij:

Speaking out against the mounting executions of Baluchis, Mowlana Gorgij, Friday prayer leader of Galikesh, bordering Sistan and Baluchestan province, said in his sermon on August 11: 

“It is our request that political prisoners and prisoners of conscience to be freed and the executions to be halted. [We] … hear slogans about unity but on the other hand see the spread of fear and terror in society.” Earlier, on January 15, 2023, supporters of Mowlana Mohammad Hossein Gorgij gathered in front of his home, preventing him from complying with a summons to appear in the Special Court for Clergy. So far, he has not appeared at the court.

Mowlawi Abdollah Barahouie:

Iran’s security agents on August 12 arrested Mowlawi Abdollah Barahouie, a scholar at the Madineh al-Oloum seminary in the city of Khash, as well as Safiollah Sharif, an Afghan national studying at the school.

Mowlawi Fathi Mohammad Naghshbandi:

On August 14, 2023, Mowlawi Fathi Mohammad Naghshbandi, the Friday prayer leader of the city of Rasak, in Sistan and Baluchestan province, was summoned to the local offices of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Intelligence Organization and the Ministry of Intelligence, as well as to the office of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s Representative in the provincial capital, Zahedan, and threatened with arrest if he continued to deliver sermons critical of the Islamic Republic.

Kurdish Sunni Clerics Sentenced to Long Prison Terms

The Kurdish regions of Iran were also disproportionally subjected to lethal state violence during the protests that erupted across Iran since September 2022. Massacres of unarmed protesters by Islamic Republic security forces took place in multiple cities in predominantly Kurdish provinces, including Mahabad, Sanandaj, Javanrud, Piranshahr, Dehgolan, Bukan, and others.

Its clerics (often referred to as “Mamostas,” which means religious teacher), who are highly respected in these communities, not only frequently spoke out in defense of the people’s right to peacefully protest and against the state’s violence against them, but also often tried to intervene directly during lethal clashes between protesters and Islamic Republic security forces, to implore the security forces to stop shooting at the unarmed protesters.

These Sunni Muslim clerics have also spoken out against Islamic Republic border guards’ indiscriminate shooting (and often killing) of couriers, known in these regions as “kulbars,” who trade goods illegally across the border due to a lack of economic opportunity in these impoverished and undeveloped regions.

For these “offenses,” these Kurdish religious leaders have been targeted for severe persecution and retribution by the Islamic Republic. For example:

Mamosta Seifollah Hosseini:

On November 21, 2022, Mamosta Seifollah Hosseini, the prayer leader of Khatam al-Anbiya mosque in Javanrud county, and a member of the Quran School Leadership Council in Kurdistan province, gave a speech at the funerals for two protesters who were shot and killed in Javanrud by state security forces (one of whom was an unarmed 16-year-old boy).

The Sunni cleric was arrested and imprisoned for his speech that day. One of Mamosta Seifollah Hosseini’s close associates, described his arrest: “On the night of December 13, [2022], IRGC Intelligence Organization agents raided Mamosta Seifollah Hosseini’s home. They broke down doors and window panes and arrested him. During the arrest, the cleric’s wife, Khatun Ghaderi, was also assaulted by the security agents and her hand was injured. Following the news of [the cleric’s] arrest, hundreds of people gathered at night in front of the governorate and the Intelligence Ministry’s office in Javanrud, demanding his release.

The agents took [the cleric] to the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization’s detention center in Kermanshah. After about two weeks of interrogation, they moved him to solitary confinement in Hamedan’s Central Prison.

He was kept for nearly 40 days in a cold cell with no heating [in December] in Hamedan Central Prison. Deprived of the right to have a lawyer of his own choice, the Sunni cleric was defrocked by the Special Court for the Clergy in Hamedan and sentenced on January 25, 2023, to 17 years in prison, 74 lashes, and exile in Ardabil for two years (six years in prison for “acting against national security,” 15 months for “propaganda activities against the state,” six years for “inciting the people to disrupt the country’s security,” two and a half years for “insulting the founder and leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” and 15 months along with 74 lashes for “disrupting public order”).

The cleric has not appealed because he does not have a lawyer.

Mamosta Jafar Parvini:

The leader of Haj Shafie Mosque in Piranshahr, West Azerbaijan province, Mamosta Jafar Parvini was arrested by Intelligence Ministry agents on February 21, 2023. There have been no further public reports since his detention.

Mamosta Hossein Alimoradi:

The director of a Sunni seminary school in Sanandaj, Kurdistan province, Mamosta Hossein Alimoradi, was handed a suspended two-year prison sentence by the Special Court for Clergy for “disturbing public opinion” on April 5, 2023.

Mamosta Saber Khodamoradi:

The prayer leader of a mosque near Saqqez, Kurdistan province, Mamosta Saber Khodamoradi, was sentenced on May 2, 2023, to 74 lashes and 7.5 months in prison by the Special Court for Clergy in connection with recent protests. No further information regarding his current status was publicly available as of early August.

Mamosta Amin Gheisari:

The prayer imam in the village of Zarwaw Olia, near Baneh in Kurdistan province, Mamosta Amin Gheisari was arrested on May 18, 2023, by Intelligence Ministry agents. There has been no further information made public since his arrest.

Mamosta Madeh Karami:

On May 23, 2023, a one-year suspended sentence was handed down against Mamosta Madeh Karami, the prayer imam of Howiyeh village near Sanandaj, in Kurdistan province, for his support of the people’s protests.

Mamosta Abdoljabbar Lotfi:

On May 24, 2023, the religious instructor and Friday prayer leader of Ershad Jame Mosque in Sanandaj, Mamosta Abdoljabbar Lotfi, was defrocked by the Special Court for Clergy and sentenced to 74 lashes and 7.5 months in prison in connection with protests in Kurdistan province. There are no further public reports regarding his current status.

Mamosta Zana Khoshaman:

On June 15, 2023, Mamosta Zana Khoshaman, a Kurdish Sunni cleric from Piranshahr, West Azerbaijan province, was sentenced to 25 months in prison for being an alleged member of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran. There have been no further public reports regarding his status.

Mamosta Ebrahim Karimi:

In mid-June 2023 Mamosta Ebrahim Karimi, Friday prayer leader of the Jameh Mosque in the village of Nanleh was sentenced to 12 years in prison (5 years mandatory if upheld), in addition to being defrocked and banished to Bushehr for two years, by the Special Court for Clergy in Hamedan on various sham charges, including “possessing a handgun,” “propaganda against the state,” and “inciting riots and supporting protests.” There are no further public reports regarding his current status.

Mamosta Loqman Amini:

In mid-June 2023, the Special Court for Clergy in Hamedan sentenced Mamosta Loqman Amini, Friday prayer leader of the Jameh Mosque in Sanandaj, Kurdistan province, to 11 years in prison (5 years mandatory if upheld) on the same baseless charges, in addition to being defrocked and banished to Ardabil for two years. There are no further public reports regarding his current status.

Mamosta Mohammad Arman Sadeghi:

The director of Dar al-Oloum seminary in Dehgolan, Kurdistan province, Mamosta Mohammad Arman Sadeghi, was defrocked by the Special Court for Clergy and sentenced to 74 lashes and 7 months in prison in May 2023, in connection with the protests, and on July 3, 2023, Iran’s Appeals Court upheld the sentence against Mamosta Mohammad Arman Sadeghi. There have been no new reports since his sentence was upheld.

Mamosta Omar Ebrahimi:

Kurdish Sunni cleric Mamosta Omar Ebrahimi was arrested on July 10, 2023, after being summoned to the Intelligence Ministry office in Piranshahr, West Azerbaijan province. Ebrahimi is the Friday prayer leader of Gargul Sofla village. There have been no further public reports since he was arrested.

On July 13, 2023, Friday prayer imams, Mamosta Jamaleddin Vaji and Mamosta Sharif Mahmoudpour, were summoned and interrogated in the Intelligence Ministry office in Piranshahr, West Azerbaijan province.

Mamosta Saber Khodamoradi:

On July 23, 2023, Mamosta Saber Khodamoradi, a Sunni prayer leader of a mosque as well as a seminary instructor in a village near Saqqez, Kurdistan province, was resummoned  to the Special Court for Clergy in Hamedan, which on May 2, 2023, had sentenced him to 74 lashes and 7.5 months in prison on charges of “propaganda against the state,” “supporting riots,” “insulting officials,” and “disturbing public opinion.” There have been no further public reports since then.

Islamic Republic Violates Both Iranian and International Law

The Islamic Republic’s persecution of the country’s Sunni clerics for speaking out peacefully against the state’s illegal acts–including its lethal repression of protesters, its indiscriminate killing of border couriers, and its targeting of minority communities for unlawful death sentences—profoundly violates Iranian law and multiple international treaties to which Iran is a signatory, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), as well as the UN’s Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials.

These clerics are typically prosecuted in trials severely lacking in due process, including the denial of independent legal counsel, and are largely defenseless against the state’s onslaught against them.

The Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) urges the international community—including the UN Human Rights Council’s (UNHRC) International Independent Fact-Finding Mission on the Islamic Republic of Iran, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the UN’s special rapporteurs and experts—to highlight the plight of these persecuted clerics, especially those that are now behind bars, and to call upon the authorities in Iran forcefully and publicly to immediately release these individuals.

“Baluchi and Kurdish Sunni clerics are among the few voices peacefully speaking out against the state’s lethal violence toward these oppressed communities, and they are being locked up for it,” said Ghaemi. “The international community must forcefully raise its voice in their defense.”

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