Backlash from Evangelical, Jewish groups after Iranian official tapped as chair of unofficial UN human rights forum

United Nations building in Geneva, Switzerland.
United Nations building in Geneva, Switzerland. | iStock/SanderStock

Updated at 9:30 a.m. ET July 6

Voices from both the Evangelical and Jewish worlds are criticizing the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) for organizing an event on religion and human rights with the Iranian delegation to the United Nations.

In May, Václav Balek, the president of the U.N. Human Rights Council, confirmed the appointment of Iranian Ambassador Ali Bahreini as chairman of the U.N. Human Rights Council Social Forum 2023, according to The Telegraph.

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The event, titled “The Role of Religions in Protection and Promotion of Human Rights,” was organized with the Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Following Balek’s announcement, a number of groups, including the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran, called on the U.N. to retract the appointment, calling it a move of “shocking ethical blindness.”

Now, both the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a prominent Jewish rights organization, and Johnnie Moore, president of The Congress of Christian Leaders, say the WEA, which bills itself as the world’s largest international organization of Evangelical churches, made the wrong move.

“The WEA has gone to a place no serious evangelical organization has gone to before: absurdly partnering with Iran to ‘promote’ human rights,” Moore told The Christian Post. “The WEA may try to act like this didn’t happen, but it did.”

Rabbi Abraham Cooper with the Simon Wiesenthal Center said the appointment could send the wrong signal to Iran and the world.

“It is difficult to put into words the damage done by the World Evangelical Alliance to the cause for human rights and human dignity in Iran by arranging for an opening statement by Iranian Ambassador Ali Bahreini at the United Nations in Geneva,” said Cooper in a statement. 

“This is a time when NGOs, including and especially those that purport to speak for hundreds of church groups around the world, should be focusing all of its efforts to stand in solidarity,  and aid and abet, not providing legitimacy on the world stage to the murderous regime in Tehran, to the women of Iran who continue their heroic quest for full freedom of expression and freedom of religion.”

For Cooper, the decision by the WEA to partner with Iran and Pakistan — which, as he pointed out, has anti-blasphemy laws that endanger Christians and other minorities —  contradicts the organization's history of working to protect victims of religious persecution.

“The decision … flies in the face of an event that the WEA hosted just last month in which they honored an Iranian Muslim woman who converted to Christianity,” he added.

A 2020 report from the WEA documented a number of incidents involving persecution of Christians in Iran, including a ban on services in Farsi and the prosecution of religious minorities for “peaceful activities.”

Moore said despite the WEA’s claim to speak for over 600 million Evangelicals worldwide, “nothing could be a more profane representation of Evangelicals than this.”

“Repeatedly, Evangelicals around the world, and others, have raised concerns about the WEA’s operation in Geneva with repeated assurances that things would change,” he added. “Apparently, rather than changing Geneva it is Geneva which has changed the WEA.”

Cooper seconded that concern.

“In organizing today’s event, the WEA leadership have given a very powerful example about how religions can damage and degrade human rights,” said Cooper in a statement last Friday.

While the Social Forum 2023 does take place under the U.N. banner, it is not an official U.N. “body or mechanism,” a spokesperson told the Telegraph, adding that only one person —  Bahreini — received a nomination for the position.

“No other nomination has been presented by any other regional group,” the spokesperson added.

A request for comment via the WEA website was not returned as of Tuesday. We will update this story in the event a response is received.

 With U.N. offices in New York City and Geneva, the WEA consists of nine regional and 143 national Evangelical alliances of churches and purports to represent more than 600 million evangelical Christians.

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