U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed "deep concern" on Thursday over the continued persecution of religious minority communities in Iran by the national government.
"Freedom of religion is the birthright of people of all faiths and beliefs in all places," Clinton stated following the sentencing of seven Baha'i leaders earlier this week.
"The United States is committed to defending religious freedom around the world," she added, "and we have not forgotten the Baha'i community in Iran."
On Sunday, Iran sentenced seven leading members of the Baha'i community, the country's largest non-Muslim religious minority, to 20-year-jail terms.
The leaders, who were incarcerated and held for nearly two years without due process, had been charged with crimes including espionage, propaganda activities against the Islamic order, and spreading "corruption on earth."
A number of rights organizations, however, allege that the prosecutions and sentences are politically and religiously motivated acts. They say religious minorities, particularly Baha'is, as well as Christians and Sufi Muslims, have suffered intensified physical attacks, harassment, detention, arrests, and imprisonment in recent years.
They also say the government continues to impose lengthy prison sentences on prominent reformers from the Shia majority community, many of whom have been tried on charges of "insulting Islam," criticizing the Islamic Republic, and publishing materials that allegedly deviate from Islamic standards.
"This is an outrageous miscarriage of justice and one more example of how the Iranian regime is a gross violator of human rights and religious freedoms," commented Leonard Leo, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), in regards to Sunday's sentencing.
USCIRF is one of several groups that have called for the unconditional release of the seven Baha'i leaders.
In her remarks Thursday, Clinton said the United States "strongly condemns" Sunday's sentencing as a violation of Iran's obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
She also reaffirmed the United State's commitment to defend religious freedom around the world – a commitment that some critics of the Obama administration have questioned in recent months.
"We will continue to speak out against injustice and call on the Iranian government to respect the fundamental rights of all its citizens in accordance with its international obligations," Clinton stated.
According to reports, attorneys for the five Baha'i men and two women are in the process of filing an appeal.
Each year, since 1999, the State Department has designated Iran a "Country of Particular Concern," or CPC, due to its systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.