Sunday, 31 July 2016
This article was first published in Le Monde in French and has been translated by Iran Probe.
By Alis Papen, Le Monde – Published on July 21st, 2016
From early July Bourget hall hosted the Iranian opposition in exile gathering for a laic state that bans any and all forms of religious discrimination.
Thousands of yellow placards raised by the crowd read “1,000 Ashraf.” Ashraf is the name of a camp of exiled Iranians built in the Iraqi desert. Ashraf is also a symbol of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a coalition of opposition groups, including the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MeK) rallying with its supporters on July 9th in a political scene in the huge Bourget exhibition park located in Seine-Saint-DenisProvince of France. Back in September 2013 the refugee camp, home to members of Iranian opposition refugees, was the target of an attack. Over 50 people lost their lives in a bloodbath. Hundreds of participants thirsty for change were chanting, “1, 2, 3, 1,000 Ashraf! We will built 1,000 Ashraf, 1,000 cities of resistance, 1,000 centers of No to the mullahs’ regime, and yes to freedom and democracy.”
Members of the exiled community, international political dignitaries and religious clerics all called for a freer Iran. They no longer want an Islamic theocracy run by President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Instead they want to witness NCRI President Maryam Rajavi in Iran. Wearing a headscarf and a green dress, her speech in the afternoon came with a roar of claps. “My fellow Kurdish, Arab and Baluchi countrymen, followers of various religions, especially our Sunni brothers and sisters, they say you are the targets of oppression and discrimination more than ever before, from various arrests and executions in Ahvaz in southwest Iran, to the mortar barrages launched against Kurdistan villages,” she said.
In the heart of her political program – consisting of a central 10-point plan – there is also a change of the religious state: “The Iranian Resistance is committed to the separation of church and state. Any discrimination against the followers of all religions and faiths will be banned.” To review these issues, the NCRI – with no association to a particular religion – includes a freedom of religion commission in which nearly 20 members of various religions are focused on the issue of equality.
Lives that change
In the Islamic republic of Iran founded from the 1979 revolution, religion is more important than politics. The supreme leader supervises over the executive, legislative and judiciary branches. The supreme leader has the right to disqualify the president chosen in public polls. Furthermore, if the majority of the people are associated to an official religion – duodenal Shiite Islam – in Iran Christians, Sunni Muslims, Jews, Zoroastrians, Bahais and Ahl Haq live in a status where their religious freedoms are tarnished. A shocking Amnesty International report sheds light on this matter: “News reports show the arrest and apprehension of dozens of Baha’is, Christian converts and members of the Christian minority, including teachers providing Baha’i college classes as their higher education is banned.”
Amongst the crowd there are oppressed Iranians. Such as Saeed who is exiled today in the United States. While he was a Shiite young man, his life changed when he converted into Christianity, finding a new dimension in life. As a priest, he has launched a network of churches in around 30 cities. Secret rituals are held in the homes of different individuals. Everything stopped in 2013 when the regime sentenced him to 8 years in prison. “I was arrested for my so-called political activities. However, only my religious commitments were obtrusive,” he said. Today, Saeed is free and is concerned about the fate of other Christian converts, whom according to him their numbers are on the rise.
We run into Karim, who left behind his luggage on the other side of the oceans. He is 50 years old and left Shiite Islam to join the Sunnis. “The mullahs’ regime pushed me away from Shiite Islam. In my view it was no longer a religion of peace,” this political refugee says.
Mohsen is a 34-year-old informatics specialist who has been in France for 6 years now. He is happy that today he can freely talk about his religious beliefs. “In Iran it is better for one who is not a Shiite to remain quiet. Only my friends were aware of me no longer believing in God,” he says.
Jacque Gaillot delivers support
These Iranians in exile, amongst whom are many who have endured painful paths in life, can count on the support of foreign priests present in this gathering. Many of them have come from the United States and United Kingdom, such as Pastor Edward Young, who considers his presence completely natural.
“Christianity is a religion of peace and love. Our role as priests is to defend the religiously oppressed,” he said.
Daniel Delgado, an evangelical priest from New York agrees with this issue and he has come to bring “hope to an oppressed nation.”
Alongside these charismatic leaders, the presence of a French bishop raises eyebrows. However, Jacque Gaillot, former bishop of Auver-Sur-Oise, known for his militant positions, likes to describe himself with humor as “amongst the old resistance furnishings.” It has been 25 years since he has been supporting this opposition.
“Once an event is happy or sad, I join their movement,” he said. This gathering is a type of vitrine for the Iranian Resistance. This Catholic bishop who has experienced the many ups and downs in life, has a very goodwill approach towards the NCRI.
“It is not important to merely enter the resistance. The important thing is to remain in this movement till the very end. They have stayed. They are brave,” he added.
Another camp of Iranian refugees and opposition members, located near Baghdad airport, was once again bombed in early July, according to the NCRI. Despite all this, a few days later the opposition remains intact and refuses to call it quits.