Human Rights

In Iran, intensified attacks in one little-known city are a microcosm of the persecution against Baha'i's

In Brief: 
  • A new report catalogs the systematic campaign against Bahá’ís in one little-known Iranian city, Semnan, which has a population of 125,000 and only a few hundred Bahá’ís.
  • Yet since 2009, at least 30 Bahá’ís have been arrested there, some 27 Bahá’í-owned businesses have been closed by authorities, and more than a dozen Bahá’í properties have been hit by arsonists.
  • It is a case study in how official and semi-official elements in an Iranian municipality — including the police, the courts, local officials, and the clergy — can coordinate efforts to completely oppress a minority community.

SEMNAN, Iran — At first glance, the alleged crimes that sent Adel Fanaian to prison for six years in May 2012 seem particularly grave. They include “mobilizing a group with the intent to disturb national security” and “propaganda against the sacred regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

But a more careful reading of the court record shows Mr. Fanaian was convicted for participation in activities that, in any other country, would be perfectly legal and even quite praiseworthy. His endeavors included organizing regular worship for his religious community, overseeing the development of morals classes for children and youth, and helping young people obtain a college education.

Mr. Fanaian’s severe punishment for his efforts — all aimed at trying to hold together the much-beleaguered Bahá’í community — is but one of a series of harsh prison sentences handed down to Bahá’ís in Semnan in May 2012.

Also in May, three other Bahá’ís in Semnan were sentenced to imprisonment on similar charges. Pouya Tebyanian received six and a half years, Faramarz Firouzian four and a half years, and Anisa Ighani four years and four months. Her husband, Siamak, is already serving time in prison and her incarceration will leave their two young children without resident parents. He had been convicted in 2009 of “membership in illegal groups” and “propaganda activities in favor of Bahaism” for his practice of the Bahá’í Faith.

Over the past four years, Bahá’ís in Semnan have faced raids, arrests, and imprisonments at the hands of government officials; their businesses have been subjected to arson and graffiti attacks or shut down altogether; their cemeteries have been vandalized; their beliefs have been attacked in the media and from the pulpit of mosques. Perhaps most ominously, their children have been denounced in the city’s schools.

In Semnan since 2005, at least 34 Bahá’ís have been arrested, some 27 Bahá’í-owned businesses have been closed by authorities, and more than a dozen Bahá’í homes and businesses have been hit by arsonists.

This bleak situation is not confined to Semnan. Bahá’ís are facing particularly severe oppression in a number of other cities, including Abadeh, Aligudarz, Bukan, Isfahan, Ivel, Khorramabad, Laljin, Mashhad, Parsabad, Rafsanjan, Ravansar, and Shiraz.

What makes Semnan significant is the depth, breadth, and intensity of attacks in a small area, sustained over a number of years. Moreover, the widespread and coordinated nature of the attacks on Bahá’ís in Semnan could only be accomplished with government encouragement and permission. The recent intensification there seems to indicate a new level of activity to enforce more strongly the government’s long-established policy of discrimination against Bahá’ís.

Inciting hatred

The current phase of persecution against the Semnan Bahá’ís started in late 2008 with reports that a series of widely publicized anti-Bahá’í seminars and rallies had been organized in the city. One, held at the Semnan Red Crescent Society theater, analyzed the supposed link between the Bahá’í Faith and Zionism, a common anti-Bahá’í propaganda theme.

Within weeks of those rallies, on 15 December 2008, the homes of some 20 Bahá’ís were raided by authorities at dawn. Bahá’í materials, computers, and mobile telephones were seized. Nine Bahá’ís whose homes were raided were arrested, one at the time of the raids and eight more later, all on entirely false or illegal charges relating purely to their peaceful practice of the Bahá’í Faith. “Evidence” gathered in those raids has sent several Semnan Bahá’ís to court and ultimately prison.

Starting in 2009, there have been numerous incidents of arson or vandalism against Bahá’í homes, businesses, and the cemetery. While many of these were undertaken by apparently anonymous individuals, all signs point to official sanction and, likely, the use of plainclothes agents. These incidents have often been accompanied by the spray-painting of anti-Bahá’í graffiti on buildings with slogans such as “Death to Bahá’ís.”

Economic sanctions

Accompanying these attacks have been increased efforts by local authorities to destroy the livelihood of Bahá’ís. This has included a decision in early 2009 by the Chamber of Commerce and some 39 associated trade unions to prohibit the issuing of business licenses or managerial permits to Bahá’ís and to decline to renew existing ones. Most recently, two factories with Bahá’í-ownership interests were shut down in May 2012 — causing not only about 17 Bahá’ís but also at least 42 Muslim employees to lose their jobs. Overall, the closure of some 27 Bahá’í businesses has deprived some 110 families of their main livelihood.

Muslim clerics have been invited to give presentations in Semnan classrooms that insult the Faith. In some cases, Bahá’í school children have been segregated from their classmates. On at least two occasions, Muslim students were encouraged to physically hurt Bahá’í students.

Intelligence agents have stepped up their surveillance of Bahá’ís in Semnan, following them everywhere, apparently as a form of psychological pressure. This heightened monitoring has reportedly caused Bahá’í children to live in constant fear that their parents will be arrested.

The Bahá’ís have made wide-ranging efforts to bring all of these injustices to the attention of the relevant authorities and to seek redress. In virtually every case, they have been rebuffed, further evidence that the government condones these attacks.

In recent years, moreover, it appears that the government has begun to experiment with increasingly violent methods. This has come not only in the form of rising arrests and imprisonment but also in the incitement of hatred against Bahá’ís, with a resulting increase in personal attacks, arson, vandalism, and hate graffiti. Such attacks often appear to be initiated by ordinary citizens, although there is considerable evidence of involvement by government agents, either directly or through agitation.

[Editor’s Note: The following story is adapted from a new Bahá’í International Community report, The Bahá’ís of Semnan: a case study in religious hatred. The report examines how events in one city in north central Iran are representative of the wide-ranging persecution faced by Iranian Bahá’ís throughout the country. The full report can be found online at: www.bic.org/inciting-hatred]

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