Human Rights

Alarming new evidence that Iranian Baha'is are being secretly monitored

In Brief: 

"We call on the regime in Iran to respect the religious freedom of all its minorities, and to ensure that these minorities are free to practice their religious beliefs without discrimination or fear."

Scott McClellan, White House press secretary

The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief releases a secret letter from the Iranian military command; human rights groups express grave concern.

NEW YORK – Recent events in Iran have begun to follow a pattern that has often preceded major human rights violations in the past, greatly alarming international human rights monitors and groups, particularly with respect to the long persecuted Bahá'í community of Iran.

Chief among these events is the discovery of a secret 29 October 2005 letter from the Iranian military high command ordering police and Revolutionary Guard units to “identify” and “monitor” members of the Bahá'í community of Iran.

The letter's existence was made known on 20 March 2006 by the Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights on freedom of religion or belief, Asma Jahangir, who said its contents made her “highly concerned.”

“[S]uch monitoring constitutes an impermissible and unacceptable interference with the rights of members of religious minorities,” said Ms. Jahangir, in a statement, also expressing the concern that “the information gained as a result of such monitoring will be used as a basis for the increased persecution of, and discrimination against, members of the Bahá'í Faith.”

Also of concern is a series of recent attacks on the Bahá'í Faith in Iranian news media. Since late 2005, more than 30 mostly negative and often defamatory articles about the Bahá'ís and their religion have appeared in Kayhan , the official Tehran daily newspaper. Radio and television broadcasts have likewise increasingly condemned the Bahá'ís and their beliefs.

In addition, international news reports and blogs have charted the rise in influence of a specifically anti-Bahá'í Society, known as Hojjatieh, in high government circles.

In response to these trends — and especially in response to Ms. Jahangir's documentation of the 29 October Iranian military letter — a number of international human rights groups, governments, and news organizations have expressed alarm at the threat facing Iranian Bahá'ís.

In a statement on 5 April 2006, for example, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) said it “fears that the identification and monitoring of the Bahá'ís combined with the current hatred propaganda in the media could lead to increased discrimination in their regards and calls upon the Iranian authorities to abide by their international human rights commitments.”

A spokesman for the President of the United States , in a White House briefing on 28 March 2006, said the US Government shares the concerns of Ms. Jahangir.

“We call on the regime in Iran to respect the religious freedom of all its minorities, and to ensure that these minorities are free to practice their religious beliefs without discrimination or fear,” said Scott McClellan, White House press secretary. “And we will continue to monitor the situation of the Bahá'í — the Bahá'ís in Iran very closely, and to speak out when their rights are denied.”

In Europe, the Council of Europe expressed “deep concern” over the human rights situation in Iran in a 15 May resolution, noting restrictions on freedom of expression and religion, and specifically mentioning the situation of the Bahá'ís of Iran.

In France , Foreign Affairs Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said in an April interview that “[w]e are deeply worried about the harassment of the Bahá'í and Sufi minorities who are highly discriminated against.”

In India, Member of Parliament Karan Singh wrote a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, calling attention to the Special Rapporteur's statement and urging him to “take up this matter” with Iranian authorities.

A number of news organizations have also reported on these concerns. Agence France Presse and Reuters both carried news of Ms. Jahangir's statement when it was released. Other news organizations — including the Philadelphia Inquirer , the Toronto Star , the Indian Express , and the Times of India — have followed up with other stories recently on the threat facing Iranian Bahá'ís.

Officials of the Bahá'í International Community were quick to express concern after Ms. Jahangir's statement.

“We are dreadfully afraid for the lives of our fellow Bahá'ís in Iran ,” said Bani Dugal , principal representative of the Bahá'í International Community to the United Nations, in a statement released within hours of Ms. Jahangir's announcement.

“We make an urgent plea to all nations and peoples on behalf of our Iranian coreligionists that they not allow a peace-loving, law-abiding people to face the extremes to which blind hate can lead,” said Ms. Dugal. “The ghastly deeds that grew out of similar circumstances in the past should not now be allowed to happen. Not again.”

Signs of increased monitoring

Even before the disclosure of the 29 October letter by Ms. Jahangir, there were signs of increased government monitoring of the Bahá'í community, said Ms. Dugal.

“We have received reports that the Association of Chambers of Commerce is compiling a list of Bahá'ís in every type of trade and employment, and that problems are being created for Bahá'ís in various trades in localities throughout the country,” said Ms. Dugal.

She added that Iranian Bahá'ís have also experienced an escalation of acts of personal harassment against them.

“A movement appears to have targeted Bahá'í households, which have begun receiving notes, CDs, and tracts, all of which are aimed at refuting the claims of the Faith,” said Ms. Dugal.

Some of these communications are in the form of documents allegedly written by Bahá'ís who have recanted their Faith. “One such tract is entitled ‘From one who has recanted' and attempts to show the Bahá'ís the ‘error' of their ways,” she said.

Of great concern, also, said Ms. Dugal, is the sharp increase in negative attacks on the Faith in the news media.

Since September 2005, the influential, state-controlled Kayhan newspaper has run more than 36 articles defaming the Bahá'í Faith, with the clear intention of arousing in readers feelings of suspicion, distrust and hatred for the Iranian Bahá'í community.

The articles engage in a deliberate distortion of history, make use of fake historical documents, and falsely describe Bahá'í moral principles in a manner that would be offensive to Muslims.

On 23 February 2006, for example, Kayhan ran an article titled “ Murdering of Muslims by Bahá'ís on Eve of Ashura.” It recounts an old story claiming that Bahá'ís had once sacrificed a Muslim child on the eve of an Islamic holy day, after a bout of drinking and dancing. They story is false, of course, — Bahá'ís are forbidden by their religious principles to drink alcohol — and certainly are forbidden from killing, let alone as part of any ritualistic sacrifice.

Nevertheless, the article concludes by saying: “They [the Bahá'ís] would offer beautiful women and girls to our youth to attract them to their beliefs. Unfortunately, nowadays, we again see their promotional activities increasing in order to attract the Muslim youth. We should be very careful.”

Other Iranian news media have followed suit, airing attacks against Bahá'ís on radio and television.

Before the onset of previous government campaigns of persecution against Bahá'ís, such as in 1955 and 1979, similarly defamatory articles and radio programs were run against the Bahá'ís, stirring up animosity and prejudice, apparently to prepare the public for what was to come.

“We know what hateful propaganda can lead to; recent history offers too many examples of its horrific consequences,” said Ms. Dugal.

The anti-Bahá'í Hojjatieh Society

Also of concern is the re-emergence of the Hojjatieh Society among top circles in the Iranian government.

The Society was founded in 1953 as a specifically anti-Bahá'í organization by a charismatic Shiite Muslim cleric, and during the 1979 Iranian revolution, the Society played an important role in stirring animosity against Bahá'ís. In the early years of the revolution, more than 200 Bahá'ís were killed, hundreds were imprisoned, and thousands lost jobs, pensions, or access to education.

In the early 1980s, the Society fell into disfavor and was banned in 1984, in part because of differences over theology. Among other things, the Society holds that a truly Islamic state cannot be established until the return of the 12th Imam, a prophetic ninth century figure that many Shiites believe will come back as the ultimate savior of humanity.

Recently, however, the Society has re-emerged as an influential if secretive faction. Last fall, several news organizations, including Reuters, linked it with upper levels of the current Iranian administration. Outside observers in blogs and elsewhere have connected the Society's re-emergence with the return of hardliners to positions of power in the government, including President Ahmadinejad, who has frequently stated his expectation that the 12th Imam will return soon.

As has been reported here in previous issues, other events in 2005 have likewise raised concerns among human rights groups. In December, a Bahá'í, 59-year-old Dhabihu'llah Mahrami, died in an Iranian prison of unknown causes after being wrongly jailed for 10 years.

Also last year, at least 59 Bahá'ís were arrested, detained or imprisoned, a figure up sharply from the last several years. As well, Bahá'í youth remain excluded from higher education in Iran , despite government promises to the international community in recent years that they would be allowed to attend university.