Human Rights

In Iran, the bulldozing of 50 Baha'i homes is only part of the story

In Brief: 
  • The demolition of 50 Bahá’í homes in the small Iranian village of Ivel reflects a continuing government-sponsored campaign of persecution
  • The Bahá’ís of Ivel sought for years to live side by side with their Muslim neighbors in peace — and also to contribute to the betterment of the community at large

The demolition of 50 Bahá’í homes in small northern Iranian farming village of Ivel in June drew expressions of outrage from around the world.

The BBC used the incident to introduce a general story about the wide-ranging and intensifying persecution faced by Bahá’ís under Iran’s current fundamentalist regime.

Numerous websites and blogs added their own condemnation of the action. A video posted on YouTube by Human Rights Activists, for example, showed piles of rubble that were once houses, some ablaze, after being razed by unidentified men using at least four bucket-loaders.

Behind the incident, however, is a wider story of how the Bahá’ís of Ivel have long endured persecution by fantatical elements from outside, all the while getting along well with their Muslim neighbors. At the same time, they have sought to contribute to the betterment of the community at large, through projects like a school and community bathhouse.

In its earliest days, Ivel was the summer residence for sheep farmers from the surrounding region of Mazandaran. There have been Bahá’ís in the village for more than a 150 years. Indeed, at one point, Bahá’ís comprised about half of Ivel’s total population — and they lived side by side with their Muslim neighbors in relative harmony.

Unfortunately, outside elements strongly inimical to the Faith have periodically sought to stir up the local population against the Bahá’í community, resulting in intermittent persecution.

In 1941, for example, gangs from outside roused local citizens to attack the Bahá’ís. The Bahá’ís were arrested, severely beaten and subjected to extortion; their houses and belongings were plundered. Finally, they were banished to a village seven kilometers away. When the situation eased some months later, the Bahá’ís returned to their homes and farms.

“Unclean” cattle

In the mid-1950s, an individual belonging to the specifically anti-Bahá’í Hojattieh Society arrived in Ivel and began to agitate against the Bahá’ís. When his efforts failed to drive a wedge between the Muslims and the Bahá’ís, he argued that Bahá’í cattle were “unclean” and should not be allowed to share the pasture.

For a few days, the cattle belonging to the Bahá’ís were confined to their barns while those of the Muslims went to graze. The Bahá’ís referred the matter to the village head, appealing for compassion to be shown to the animals. A decision was made to have the cows enter the pasture from opposite sides. But as might be expected, this did not accord with the natural instincts of the livestock, who continued to graze together.

Throughout the years, the Bahá’ís actively contributed to the betterment of life in their village. At one point, for example, they established a school for local children, which was open to all children, regardless of their religion.

By 1946, the Bahá’í school operated six elementary level classes, serving some 120 pupils from Ivel and nearby villages. Later that year, as part of a general effort to consolidate rural education, the Iranian government assumed responsibility for the school.

In 1961, the Bahá’ís completed a bath house for use by the villagers, which included modifications to the local reservoir and the introduction of modernizations to improve the levels of hygiene and the general health of the people.

Following Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979, the situation for Bahá’ís in Ivel deteriorated. Land was confiscated and attempts to regain it proved unsuccessful. Bahá’ís were denied access to health clinics and other institutions that they themselves had helped establish. Muslim children were encouraged by their teacher to harm their Bahá’í classmates. When parents protested, the teacher found other means to persecute his Bahá’í pupils, including failing them in their exams.

In June 1983, the Bahá’ís were forced out of their homes and transported by bus to the nearest major city, Sari. When they arrived, the authorities made them go back. Returning to Ivel, they were locked into a local mosque. More than 130 of them, including children and the elderly, were held captive for three days without food and water.

When pressure to make them recant their faith failed, they were allowed to return home. However, that same night, they were attacked by villagers. Since that time, many of the Ivel Bahá’ís have resided nearby and return only in the summer to plant and harvest their crops and tend their properties.

Part of a wider campaign

“What we are witnessing in Ivel, and the surrounding region of Mazandaran, is part of a wider campaign to humiliate and dishearten all the Bahá’ís and prevent them from practicing their faith in any way whatsoever,” said Diane Ala’i, representative of the Bahá’í International Community to the United Nations in Geneva. “The government has certainly demonstrated thus far that if it is not behind it, it is either unwilling to stop it or incapable of doing so.”

There are, however, many villagers in Ivel who are deeply troubled by these developments. In an interview with the Rooz Online website, Natoli Derakhshan, a Bahá’í from Ivel, paid tribute to those who have expressed dismay and concern at the ill-treatment of their Bahá’í neighbors: “These days many of our Muslim folks sat together with us with tearful eyes, and apologized to us, and held our hands! We are thankful to them all.”

Another Bahá’í from Ivel recently said that during many long years of farming, neighbors — Muslim and Bahá’í alike — often helped each other during times of difficulty.

“Among us residents, there was no difference,” Yousefali Ahmadi said in interview with Human Rights Activists. “Although our beliefs were different, it never caused any difficulty in cooperation. Our tablecloth was open to all as was our house door. Development was for the whole village; all benefitted, for we were all related.”