By Rana Tabrizi
The Bahá’í Faith is a religion founded upon unity, love, justice, and the importance of service to humankind. However, despite these internationally recognized noble aims, its members have, since its inception in 1844, faced consistent persecution from a succession of regimes that have blatantly denounced it. In its recent history, the Iranian government has denied many basic human rights to members of different minority religious groups. Amongst other individuals who have faced persecution in Iran, seven Bahá’í leaders remain captive in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. As concern for the basic safety and human rights of Bahá’ís grows internationally, members of numerous diplomatic and governmental organizations are urging citizens worldwide to take an active role in seeking justice for the Bahá’ís of Iran.
The Bahá’í Faith originated in Shiraz, Iran in 1844 when Siyyid ‘Alí-Muhammad declared Himself to be the Báb, a title meaning “Gate” in Arabic and signifying the divine origin of a new revelation. During His ministry as the predecessor of the prophet-founder of the Bahá’í Faith, Bahá’u’lláh, and even after His execution in 1850, over 20,000 followers of the Báb were summarily rounded up and put to death by orders from clergy and government officials. In 1863, Bahá’u’lláh proclaimed his station as the Messenger preordained by the Báb and anticipated in such holy books as The Bible and Qur’an among others. At this time, Bahá’u’lláh and His followers had already endured repeated exiles and would continue to face brutal persecution by the clergy and governments of various Middle Eastern countries they were sent to (Bahá’í World News Service). The primary message of the Bahá’í Faith encourages the unity of all religions and races: “The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens” (Gleanings From the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh). Building upon this central theme of the unity of mankind, Bahá’ís believe in the equality of men and women, universal education, the unity of science and religion, and the removal of extremes in poverty and wealth (Bahá’í World News Service).
With teachings of such a positive nature, it may be difficult to understand why the Bahá’í Faith has experienced so much persecution in Iran. Nobel Laureate Mrs. Shirin Ebadi explains that, “these are the desperate acts of a regime that is frantically lashing out to blame others for its troubles and to suppress any viewpoint that is different from its own ideology” (Bahá’í World News Service). Bahá’ís recognize that this type of discrimination arises when a new religion transpires from a deeply-rooted religious system; this can be observed in the prejudices that many of the major religions have faced in their early years of growth (Persecution). Being Iran’s largest minority religion at 300,000 members, the Bahá’ís have been viscously persecuted since the Faith’s inception:
Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, more than 200 Bahá’ís have been executed or killed, hundreds more have been imprisoned, and tens of thousands have been deprived of jobs, pensions, businesses, and educational opportunities. Formal Bahá’í administration had to be suspended, and holy places, shrines, and cemeteries have been confiscated, vandalized, or destroyed” (Persecution).
Another topic of much concern for educators and human rights activists around the world is the lack of access to higher education for Bahá’ís in Iran. Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Bahá’ís from all levels of education (primary, secondary, and university) were excluded from school. In the 1990s, as a result of international demands, these bans were lifted from primary and secondary school students. To this day, any Bahá’í who wishes to enroll in a university and take the entrance exam will be officially identified as Muslim, regardless of countless efforts to correctly identify them as Bahá’ís. This effort to force the religious title of Islam upon the Bahá’í population of Iran is seen as an attempt to identify Bahá’ís and discourage them from their religion and right to a higher education (Closed Doors: Iran’s Campaign to Deny Higher Education to Bahá’ís).
The arrest and current detainment of seven Bahá’í leaders has drawn much needed international attention this past year. Before their arrest, the imprisoned group tended to the needs of the Bahá’ís of Iran. As of now, they have been detained for nearly two years under false pretenses.
The first to be arrested was Mahvash Sabet, the director of the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education. Sabet previously served as a teacher and principal before being forced to leave her job following the Iranian Revolution. Shortly following her arrest on March 5, 2008, the remaining six leaders were detained on May 14 of the same year. This group includes a psychologist, factory owner, industrialist, engineer, social worker, and optometrist, several of which have faced repeated persecution in the past for being Bahá’ís. For over a year, the group was not allowed contact with attorneys or even accused of official charges. The group is now being charged with “espionage for Israel, insulting religious sanctities and propaganda against the Islamic Republic” (Bahá’í World News Service), charges that are punishable by death. The Bahá’í International Community has firmly refuted these claims, stating that both the history of the Bahá’í Faith and its fundamental beliefs have neither given reason to suggest such allegations nor evidence to support them.
The European Parliament, International Federation for Human Rights, Iranian League for the Defence of Human Rights, and U.S. Congress and State Department are a just few of the many groups who have expressed significant opposition to the treatment of the Bahá’ís in Iran. Amnesty International has said that it “is continuing to call on the Iranian authorities to release the seven immediately and unconditionally, as it considers them to be prisoners of conscience, held solely on account of their beliefs or peaceful activities on behalf of the Bahá’í community” (Amnesty International). The United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva also held the Universal Periodic Review of Iran on February 15, 2010, citing the human rights abuses that have occurred in the country.
Recently, U.S. House Resolution 175 and concurrent Senate Resolution 71, as well as a resolution accepted by the United Nations General Assembly, were all passed. These resolutions denounce the Iranian government’s discrimination against Bahá’ís and call on it to cease its persecution of members of the Baha’i Faith. Such efforts may contribute to the avoidance of another horrendous instance of execution such as that of seventeen members of Bahá’í Spiritual Assemblies in the 1980s and the sixteen year old saintly children’s class teacher, Mona Mahmudnizhad. Even as this international outcry increases, the Iranian government continues its nonpublic trials of the seven detained members. The first two trials of the seven imprisoned Bahá’í leaders on January 12 and February 7 of have not been public and the innocent group remains detained. As recent as April 12, a third court session was held, which again denied family members of the group access to the court room. However, there were several “officials and interrogators” present from the Ministry of Intelligence in addition to a film crew. Troubled by the attendance “of non-judicial personnel” during an apparently “closed hearing,” the Bahá’ís declined to engage in the hearings, having the consent of their attorneys (Bahá’í World News Service). Following the deferment of the session by the judge, no future court date was stated.
Diane Ala’i, the Bahá’í representative to the United Nations in Geneva asserts that “The Islamic Republic of Iran should immediately set free these seven innocent prisoners… the dictates of justice demand no less. They are now about to enter the third year of their incarceration on baseless charges which they have categorically denied and for which the government has no evidence whatsoever. At the very least, they should be released on bail and steps be taken to ensure that their trial is conducted fairly, in accordance with international standards of jurisprudence.”
Members of the Bahá’í Community are urging all citizens of the world to become advocates of the now forty-five detained Bahá’ís in Iran and the hundreds of thousands of our coreligionists throughout that nation. to state representatives and senators regarding resolutions, spreading awareness, and gaining support from educational and diplomatic persons are ways to get involved in seeking justice for Bahá’ís in Iran, and by extension promoting freedom of conscience globally. Seeking liberty by raising awareness and notifying leaders of organizational and governmental positions are necessary steps towards avoiding the annihilation of the fundamental civil rights of Bahá’ís in Iran, Egypt, and around the world. Bahá’ís wish for the well-being, cooperation, and harmony of all members of the world and seek peaceful support so that all people may fulfill their right to education and freedom of religion. In the words of the Bahá’í Faith’s prophet-founder Bahá’u’lláh, “So powerful is the light of unity, that it can illuminate the whole earth.”