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Iran: Bishop Concerned About Human Rights After Visit

Vaclav Maly (RFE/RL) PRAGUE, September 14, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- As a former dissident, Vaclav Maly was once a victim of political repression. Under the Czechoslovak communist regime, he spent several months in prison and his license to work as a Catholic priest was revoked. He was then forced to work odd jobs, including as a heating mechanic.

Now auxiliary bishop of Prague and a respected human rights defender who played an important role in the 1989 Velvet Revolution, Maly travels to countries where people face similar conditions to what he faced and show them his support.
"I was told that the regime is more repressive now, any larger demonstration or gathering of people is being dispersed and some protesters always end up in detention."

In recent years he has been to places such as Belarus and Chechnya to inform the public about human rights violations there. His recent trip to Iran was also an attempt to bring attention to the human rights situation in the Islamic Republic.

'Helplessness' Of Political Prisoners

The charismatic Bishop Maly spent some days in the capital, Tehran, and the cities of Shiraz and Isfahan during his two-week trip. He says he was "discreetly" watched by security agents.

He told RFE/RL that he was informed about a clampdown on activists, discrimination against women, and the plight of political prisoners. "I was told that the regime is more repressive now, any larger demonstration or gathering of people is being dispersed and some protesters always end up in detention," he says. "I was also told that there is brutality in these interventions."

There are no exact figures about the number of political prisoners in Iran. Estimates vary from 200 to several hundred. In the past two months, two have died in prison following a hunger strike. Maly says many of them face difficult conditions in jail.

"The conditions, as I was told, are very cruel; there is a lack of medical care and a lack of hygiene," Maly says. "There is also psychological harassment [and] sometimes detainees spend more than a year in solitary confinement. There is helplessness, the families have very rare contacts with the detainees, they don't have access to a lawyer, and sometimes the judiciary doesn't even tell [family members] where their relative is being detained."

Christians Leaving Iran

During his stay in Iran, Bishop Maly was also informed about the situation for Christians.

Christians are, in general, free to practice their faith in Iran. However, those who convert from Islam to Christianity can face the death penalty. Such conversions are reportedly increasing and the government has taken measures to curb proselytizing by Christians.

Maly says he was told that some protesters are always detained at demonstrations (epa file photo)

Maly says many of the estimated 200,000 Christians are leaving Iran because of social, cultural, and religious restrictions.

"[They are leaving] mainly because they live in an environment where they cannot fully live their lives as Christians," he says. "They are not prosecuted for being Christians but in certain issues they are not considered equal; sometimes they are treated as second-class citizens, for example they cannot be in commanding positions in the army."

Maly describes the immigration of Christians as a serious problem that could result in a great loss for Iran. "There is a danger that Christians could completely disappear from Iran, which would be a great spiritual and cultural pity because Christians were on Iranian territory before Islam was and there are very old churches there whose history goes back to the first century of Christianity," he says.

Differences In Iran

One of the highlights of the Prague bishop's visit was a meeting with reformist cleric Mohsen Kadivar, who in 1999 was jailed for 18 months because of his ideas.

Kadivar had been critical of the doctrine of Velayat-e Faqih (the rule of the supreme jurisprudence), which gives nearly absolute power to clerics. He has also written about the need for religion to be adapted to modern times.

Maly says it was important for him to hear that such issues are being debated within Iran's religious circles. "I was very happy to hear from Mr. Kadivar that human rights do not contradict the Koran's teachings and that the Koran needs an interpretation that is free of ideological thoughts; Islam should react to modernity, it doesn't mean it should adapt itself to all trends but they should be taken seriously and ways should be found to present it in this changing society," he says.

Maly was also addressed by ordinary citizens curious about the outside world. Several asked Maly about life in "Czechoslovakia."

He says some Iranians expressed concern about possible UN sanctions as a result of Tehran's refusal to give up sensitive nuclear work.

"Some talked about it themselves with the fear that sanctions could further isolate [Iran] so [the sanctions] should be really carefully considered," he says. "At the same time, I didn't have the impression that all are united in their support for the nuclear program, that it is the central point of life in Iran. So it is important to leave a door open and not to limit the life of a society based on the comments of some officials."

Bishop Maly says Iranians surprised him with their friendliness, openness, and pride in their ancient history.

Women In Iran

Women In Iran

Women in Tehran (epa file photo)

CALLING FOR MORE RIGHTS: Although women played key roles in Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, the place of women in post-revolutionary society has been a vexing question. Iranian women have struggled to bring attention to their calls for greater rights in their country's rigid theocratic system, calls that have often clashed with the values proclaimed by conservatives in society. (more)


Tehran Police Renew Campaign To Combat 'Un-Islamic' Dress

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The Younger Generation's 'Tehran Blues'


RFE/RL's coverage of Iran. RFE/RL's coverage of issues concerning women throughout our broadcast area.


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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.