The Special Clerical Court of Mashhad has sentenced Molavi Fazl ol-Rahman Kouhi, a Sunni Friday prayers imam from Sistan and Baluchistan, to six years and four months in prison. He was arrested in November 2019, part of the crackdown on protests that swept the nation. Iranian media reported the sentencing on October 2, but no information has been released regarding the charges against the Sunni cleric. His trial was closed to the public.
So is this is an isolated case? What has the Islamic Republic's relationship with Sunni clerics been like over the years?
Back in 1979, at the birth of the Islamic Republic and the establishment of a Shia government, the Sunni clergy enjoyed a brief honeymoon period. But it did not last long, a mere five months. Over the last 41 years, hundreds of Sunni clerics have been arrested, and some have been executed or assassinated.
Ahmad Moftizadeh was the most influential Sunni cleric arrested after the revolution. He remained in prison until a short time before his death. Ayatollah Khomeini once called him "a respected scientist and a brave cleric," but ordered his arrest in 1982, describing him as "corrupt."
Originally a supporter of the revolution, Moftizadeh became a critic of the Islamic Republic after Shia Islam was proclaimed as the country’s official religion in the Constitution, and Sunnis were removed from political positions. Although he mainly withdrew from politics, he organized and led a Sunni Congress in Tehran. From the very beginning, the leaders of the Islamic Republic opposed organizations set up by Sunni clerics. When clerics tried to form a second congress in the capital, officials blocked it and Moftizadeh held the congress at his home in Kermanshah. In 1982, he was sentenced to five years in prison. Not only was he not released after serving his sentence, he was held in solitary confinement until November 1988. Following this, he was held on a ward, and later, from late 1990 until early autumn 1992, he lived under house arrest. His health had suffered during his time in prison, and he was diagnosed with cancer. He died on February 9, 1993.
Moftizadeh's students and members of the Central Council of Sunnah (Shams) were also persecuted. More than 180 members of the Koranic school Moftizadeh set up were arrested and imprisoned until 1986. Their release was due to the highly influential Ayatollah Montazeri, who was at the time Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini’s heir apparent, following up on their case.
Nasser Sobhani, who was one of Moftizadeh's prominent students, was arrested and executed in 1990. Prior to his arrest and death, he had left Iran for a period and lived in hiding after his return to the country. Farooq Farsad, a member of the Koran School's Moral Infallibility and Judgment Council, was another Sunni cleric who was targeted. After being arrested several times, he was deported to Ardabil and finally, in 1995, he was killed in the city as part of the chain murders, in which dozens of intellectuals and political dissidents were assassinated by Ministry of Intelligence agents.
Abdol Malek Molazadeh, the son of Sunni cleric Molavi Abdol Aziz Molazadeh, who was particularly influential in eastern Iran, was arrested in September 1982 and released six months later. After being summoned several times in 1989, he went to Pakistan. He was assassinated on March 4, 1996, along with Molavi Abdol Nasser Jamshidzehi, another Sunni cleric, in Karachi. Several other Sunni clerics have also been murdered in Pakistan and Afghanistan over the years.
Sheikh Mohammad Ziaei, the Sunni Friday Imam for Bandar Abbas, Molavi Habibollah Hossein, a cleric from Saravan, Mamousta Mohammad Rabiei, a Sunni cleric and the Friday Imam of Kermanshah, were also assassinated in Iran. Murders and attempted murders have continued in recent years: Molavi Mohammad Ebrahim Safizadeh, a prominent Iranian Sunni scholar, was shot and wounded by unknown gunmen in 2019.
The Pressure Eases (A Little)
Despite the authorities’ continued pressure on Sunni religious figures in the 1980s and 1990s, some prominent clerics were invited to attend official occasions, including when Iranian officials visited Sunni provinces. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was president from 1989 until 1997, wrote in his memoirs of his trip to Sistan and Baluchistan in 1995: "Even Molavi Abdol Hamid (Esmail Zehi), the most influential Sunni scholar, who is known for opposing the revolution, had come [on the visit].”
After Mohammad Khatami’s win in the1997 presidential election, the pressure on Sunni clerics diminished somewhat. In the 2005 presidential election, after a number of prominent Sunni clerics put their support behind Mostafa Moeen, their role in the political arena became more pronounced. This trend continued in recent years, with prominent Sunni clerics supporting Hassan Rouhani.
But pressure on Sunni clerics is ongoing, and prominent clerics such as Molavi Abdol Hamid, Hassan Amini, the director of the Imam Bukhari School of Religious Studies in Sanandaj, and Molana Gargij, the Baluch Sunni Friday Imam of Azadshahr in Golestan Province, are effectively not allowed to travel to Sunni areas.
In addition to restrictions on prominent clerics, there are pressures on lesser-known Sunnis too, with many being arrested or summoned in recent years. Some clerics, including Mohammad Baraei, have been arrested on charges of propagating Salafist ideology. Some clerics have been arrested after speaking out against the discrimination against Sunnis in Iran. Others have faced arrest following clashes over government interference in Sunni seminaries.
Abdol Rashid Rigi, Molavi Mohammad Ghalandarzehi, Habibolah Jamshidi, Abdol Ghaffar Dahani and Mohammad Dehwari, all Sunni clerics from Sistan and Baluchistan, have been arrested in recent years.
Molavi Saeed Arames, Hafez Abdol Hai Aramesh, and Molavi Amin Mubaraki, three Sunni clerics in Hormozgan, Isa Azari, a Sunni cleric working in the villages near Urmia, and Molavi Ali Safar Zehi, a Sunni cleric living in Golestan province, have also faced arrest.
When Molavi Fazl ol-Rahman Kouhi, the Friday Imam of Peshamag, was arrested, it met with more anger than other recent arrests had, and people went out on the street to protest in Sistan and Baluchistan, especially in Rasak and Sarbaz. In some of these rallies, security forces opened fire or sprayed tear gas. Molavi Fazl ol-Rahman Kouhi has now been sentenced to six years and four months in prison.
At the same time, the detention of Sunni clerics in Iran has received less attention in the political arena, the media, and human rights communities. And as a result, security agencies find it easier to apply pressure on them.