A case of religious hatred
On Wednesday 14 May 2008, six members of the informal administrative committee that attended to the basic needs of Iran’s Bahá’í community, were taken from their homes in an early morning sweep ominously similar to episodes in the 1980s when scores of Iranian Bahá’ís were rounded up and killed. A seventh member of the group had already been arrested two months previously in Mashhad.
Now, reports are circulating that seven Bahá’ís imprisoned in Iran have been accused of “espionage for Israel, insulting religious sanctities and propaganda against the Islamic republic”. Their case, it is said, will be referred to the Revolutionary Court next week. It is presumed that the seven are the group who were arrested last year.
Such reports, say the Bahá’í International Community, are deeply concerning, potentially marking a new and dangerous stage in Iran’s persecution of Bahá’ís. The seven Bahá’í leaders have been held in prison for over eight months and no evidence against them has been brought to light. At no time during their incarceration have the accused been given access to their legal counsel, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mrs. Shirin Ebadi. Mrs. Ebadi has been threatened, intimidated, and vilified in the news media since taking on their case and has not been given access to their case files.
No clear reason for their imprisonment has ever been given although, at the time of their arrests, Iran claimed that they were arrested “for security reasons and not for their faith”.
For more than 160 years, the Bahá’í community has received unjustifiable treatment fuelled by religious hatred. The Bahá’í Faith has often been viewed in Iran and elsewhere as a threat to Islam. Bahá’ís have been branded heretics and apostates. The progressive position of the Faith on women’s rights, independent investigation of truth and education has particularly rankled Muslim clerics.
In the mid-1800s, some 20,000 followers were killed by the authorities or by mobs who viewed the movement as heretical. In the 20th century, periodic outbreaks of violence were directed against Bahá’ís, and the government often used them as a scapegoat. In 1979, with the establishment of the Islamic Republic, the persecutions became official government policy and were pursued in a systematic way. Since then, more than 200 Baha’is have been executed or killed, hundreds more have been imprisoned, and tens of thousands have been deprived of jobs, pensions, businesses and educational opportunities. All national Bahá’í administrative structures were banned by the government, and holy places, shrines and cemeteries were confiscated and destroyed.
While the overt persecution of Bahá’ís since 1979 came under intense international scrutiny and condemnation, the Iranian regime switched to enacting more covert social, economic, and cultural restrictions to destroy the Bahá’ís without attracting attention. Their plan was outlined in a memorandum, written in 1991, that established a national policy aimed at the quiet strangulation of the community. Its measures essentially dictated that Bahá’ís should be kept illiterate and uneducated, living only at subsistence level, and fearful at every moment that even the tiniest infraction will bring the threat of imprisonment or worse. In recent years, in line with the memorandum, extensive social and economic restrictions have been put in place and Baha’is have been subject to revolving-door arrests and detentions calculated to sow terror amongst them.
Branding Bahá’ís as Zionist spies is the latest in a long history of attempts to foment hatred by casting the Bahá’ís as agents of foreign powers, variously of Russia, the United Kingdom, or the United States – and now Israel – all of which are completely baseless. The Bahá’í world headquarters and some of its holy sites are sited within the borders of modern-day Israel as a result of the actions of Iran – or Persia – itself. Sixty years before the state of Israel was formed, in 1868, Bahá’u’lláh, exiled successively from his native Persia to Iraq and Turkey, arrived as a prisoner to ‘Akká, then a remote penal colony of the Ottoman Empire, now part of Israel.
A commitment to principles
Bahá’ís are fundamentally committed to non-partisanship and nonviolence. As a matter of principle, Baha’is are obedient to the governments in the lands in which they dwell and refrain from any partisan activity.
Far from being a threat to state security, the Bahá’ís of Iran cherish a great love for their country and are deeply committed to its development. This is evidenced, for example, by the reality that the vast majority of Bahá’ís have remained in Iran despite intense persecution, the fact that students denied access to education in Iran are forced to study abroad have returned to assist in the development of their country, and their recent efforts to provide literacy and moral training for underprivileged children. Baha’is are the well-wishers of Iranian society and proud citizens of their homeland.
Every principle to which Bahá’ís subscribe exhorts them to face opposition and hatred with friendship and love. In countless places, the Bahá’í scriptures give clear guidance on how followers should deal with those who wish them ill, for example ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote, “If others hurl their darts against you, offer them milk and honey in return; if they poison your lives, sweeten their souls; if they injure you, teach them how to be comforted; if they inflict a wound upon you, be a balm to their sores; if they sting you, hold to their lips a refreshing cup.”
Throughout their history, the Bahá’ís in Iran, when given the opportunity to recant their faith in order to save their own lives, have refused to lie about their inmost convictions. It is illogical to suggest that they might break other cardinal principles and resort to the kind of crimes they are accused of – espionage for Israel, insulting religious sanctities and propaganda against the Islamic republic. What, after all, would they hope to accomplish by such acts? It would provide a justification for even greater violence and oppression with no hope of any productive outcome.
The facts demonstrate that the Bahá’ís are persecuted purely for their religious beliefs. Time and again, Bahá’ís have been offered their freedom – and in some cases, their lives – if they recant their faith and convert to Islam. For more than a century, and particularly in the past three decades, Bahá’ís have responded to such attacks with nothing other than resignation, dignity and patience. They have preferred to face the most extreme punishments rather than deny the very principles that shape their beliefs.
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Tags: Bahai, human rights, Iran, persecution