In Iran, new anti-Baha'i tactics come amidst surprising pockets of support
In recent months, Iran's 300,000-member Bahá'í community has faced a wave of escalating violence - and at the same time found surprising pockets of support among the population.The violence and harassment comes with the obvious blessing of the government, which has fueled hatred against Bahá'ís in recent years with a defamatory campaign in the state-sponsored news media - and through outright religious discrimination in schools, the workplace, and the courts.
GENEVA - Last March, after being threatened twice, once by anti-Bahá'í graffiti at his workplace and then by a hate-filled letter, a 53-year-old Bahá'í businessman in Shiraz, Iran, was chained to a tree, doused with gasoline, and assaulted by an unknown assailants who threw lighted matches at him.
Fortuitously, none of the four matches that were tossed at the man ignited the deadly fuel. The first failed to light, the second went out immediately, a third hit his clothes but did not spark the gas, and a fourth fell harmless to the ground. At that point, the assailants - apparently nervous - jumped back in their car and fled, shortly before neighbors arrived and freed the victim.
The entire incident, from the extreme nature of its assault to the neighborly rescue, offers a striking glimpse of the general situation facing Iranian Bahá'ís today as they strive to practice their religious beliefs in the land where their religion was born.
In recent months, Iran's 300,000-member Bahá'í community has faced a wave of escalating violence - and at the same time found surprising pockets of support among the population.
The violence and harassment comes with the obvious blessing of the government, which has fueled hatred against Bahá'ís in recent years with a defamatory campaign in the state-sponsored news media - and through outright religious discrimination in schools, the workplace, and the courts.
The government has acted directly against Bahá'ís as well, through stepped up arrests, detentions, interrogations and harassment, principally by agents of the Ministry of Intelligence.
These agents also often act in disguise - or on orders or court judgments that are kept secret, said Diane Ala'i, a representative of the Bahá'í International Community to the UN, who closely monitors the situation in Iran.
"What Iranian Bahá'ís are facing is a kind of institutionalized 'plainclothes' violence - barely disguised attacks by government agents and their proxies, hoping to make the outside world think it is the people of Iran that are rising up against Bahá'ís," said Ms. Ala'i.
"The obvious aim is to allow the government to distance itself from international condemnation for its treatment of Bahá'ís, by claiming that they can't help it if the people themselves feel prejudice against them.
"No doubt there are some individuals who believe the government's lies about Bahá'ís, and have been moved to act - such as perhaps those who doused the Bahá'í with gasoline in Shiraz.
"However, alongside stories of harassment, persecution and oppression, we are also receiving reports that tell how ordinary Iranian citizens are rejecting the propaganda of their government and, instead, offering various kinds of support to their Bahá'í friends and neighbors," said Ms. Ala'i. "In some cases, even government officials, judges and others have stood up for Bahá'ís."
The most recent example of such support came recently when Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri issued a decree saying that Bahá'ís have the right of citizenship and should be treated with "Islamic compassion," even if they are not recognized as an official religious minority, as are Christians and Jews.
Ayatollah Montazeri was one of the leaders of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and for a time was the designated successor to the former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini. He has more recently been identified with those seeking reform.
Despite such events, the government campaign against Bahá'ís is severe and escalating.
Seven leaders arrested
The most notable example was the recent arrests of seven Bahá'í leaders, which received extensive attention in the international news media. The entire group of men and women who help see to the minimum needs of the Bahá'í community of Iran were arrested in two steps, in March and then May, in a sweep ominously similar to episodes in the 1980s when scores of Iranian Bahá'í leaders were rounded up and killed.
As of this writing, all seven remain in prison, with no access to lawyers and no formal charges against them - although a government spokesperson told the news media in late May that they were being held for "security reasons."
Such "allegations are not new, and the Iranian government knows well that they are untrue,"said Bani Dugal, the principal representative of the BIC to the UN, adding that those arrested, "like the thousands of Bahá'ís who since 1979 have been killed, imprisoned, or otherwise oppressed, are being persecuted solely because of their religious beliefs."
Other attacks on Iranian Bahá'ís in recent months include:
- On 8 September 2007 a number of Bahá'í homes in Vilashahr were defaced with graffiti that stated "unclean Bahá'ís, stipendiaries of Israel," "Bahá'ís are enemies of God", and "Bahá'ís are traitors to their country."
- Between 18 November 2007 and 10 January 2008, the government-backed Kayhan newspaper published a series of 40 articles about the Bahá'ís in pre-revolutionary Iran, portraying the community as a powerful and wealthy group that was bent on undermining the teachings of Islam. In these articles Bahá'ís are described as cruel and dishonest, ruthless in business, tax-evaders, of dissolute character, involved in drugs, and long known as looters and murders. Among other wholly unfounded allegations in these articles is that the Bahá'ís are part of a political movement against Islam that introduced western ideologies to Iran.
- On 28 December 2007, officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards entered four Bahá'í homes in Shiraz, searching and seizing Bahá'í books and materials. The secretary of the local group that coordinates the affairs of the Bahá'í community there was arrested and taken into custody, where she was interrogated several times by agents using a high intensity light and video or film recording equipment. She was released on 10 January 2008 on the equivalent of $11,000 bail.
Although the figure changes almost daily, at last count there were more than 20 Bahá'ís in prison in Iran. More than 70 are out on bail and awaiting trial on various charges, all related to their religious belief. At least 75 others are free pending an appeal or a summons to serve their sentence.
At the same time, however, as with the declaration by Ayatollah Monterzi, a few segments of the population have clearly rejected the government's campaign against Bahá'ís.
On 15 March 2008, the appeal court of the Province of Hamadan overturned guilty verdicts against four Bahá'ís from that city who had been arrested and then found guilty by a lower court on charges of "teaching against the regime." The appeals court ruled that not only are Bahá'ís not against the government, but they are also absolutely obedient to it and that teaching the Bahá'í Faith cannot be regarded as teaching against the regime.
Similarly, on 26 September 2007 the Semnan Court of Appeal overturned the conviction of a Bahá'í who had been sentenced to four months' imprisonment on a charge of anti-regime activity by distributing the 15 November 2004 letter from the Bahá'í community of Iran to then President Mohammad Khatami. The Court of Appeal found that the letter "was in fact a way of petitioning and conveying an expression of the situation and treatment of the Bahá'ís" with no "intention to protest against or defame the regime."
Ordinary Iranians, as well, have recently shown support for Bahá'ís in a number of incidents. In January, for example, after a Bahá'í family was attacked in Abadeh by the paramilitary Basij Resistance Force, friends and neighbors gave shelter, expressed sympathy and even offered to compensate for damage.
The incident began when the Basij closed the entrance leading to a Bahá'í home owned in Abadeh and drove a bulldozer into it, demolishing a wall. Twenty Basij personnel, whose faces were covered, raided and ransacked the house. The women and children who were in the house fled in terror, taking refuge in the homes of neighbors.
Despite this semi-official attack, the family was supported by Muslim officials and friends, who denounced those who had attacked them. Others visited the family, expressing sympathy and some even offered to pay for damages caused by the attack.