Iranian Gov't Marks Anniversary amid Criticism of Religious Abuse

The 31st anniversary of Iran's Islamic Revolution was marred Thursday by protests and criticism of religious abuse.

Civilians took to the streets to demonstrate against the current hard-line government led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The pro-reform demonstrators were headed towards Tehran square, where Ahmadinejad was to give a speech, but were blocked by security forces.

Several opposition leaders were reportedly beaten or injured by tear gas during the clash, according to opposition sources.

Aside from the political turmoil in Iran, the Islamic government is also under fire for religious freedom abuse. The Iranian government regularly persecutes religious minorities as well as Muslims whose beliefs deviate from its own.

On the eve of the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom released a statement saying it condemns the Iranian government's harassment of its citizens because of their religious adherence.

"Sadly, the Iranian government has been repressing its citizens on the basis of religious identity for years, but in recent months it has been increasingly manipulating the reach of its religious laws to silence, and in some cases put to death, Shia Muslims simply for exercising their internationally protected rights of freedom of expression and freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief," said Leonard Leo, chair of USCIRF, on Wednesday.

The U.S. watchdog on religious freedom noted that in recent years the government has stepped up persecution of religious minorities, including Christians, who face physical attacks, harassment, detention, arrests and imprisonment.

Last fall, the Iranian government threatened the pastor of the largest church that holds public services to stop Friday worship services or else the entire Central Assemblies of God Church in Tehran would be shut down.

The government also arrested two young Iranian women last year who converted to Christianity from Islam simply because of their faith. After the international community put pressure on the government, the two converts were released in November, eight months after their arrests. The women are said to have endured psychological abuse, including sleep deprivation and hours-long interrogation. They were also denied medical care while in prison.

Since 1999, the State Department has designated Iran a "Country of Particular Concern," a label reserved for countries with the most severe religious freedom abuse.