United Nations

UN General Assembly calls for complete "emancipation" of Iran's Baha'i community

In Brief: 

The resolution follows the suspicious deaths of two Bahá'ís in July and a subsequently strong report by a UN human rights investigator in October

UNITED NATIONS - For the twelfth time in 13 years, the United Nations General Assembly has passed a resolution expressing concern over the human rights situation in Iran, taking special note of "grave breaches" of the rights of Bahá'ís there.

The resolution, passed on 12 December 1997 by a vote of 74 to 32 with 56 abstentions, followed an October report by Maurice Danby Copithorne, a UN human rights special investigator, which stated that there has been "no improvement" in the situation of Iran's Bahá'ís, despite repeated calls by the international community for Iran to live up to international laws that protect human rights and religious tolerance.

Prof. Copithorne reported, for example, that two Bahá'ís were killed in July and "those responsible for the deaths were enjoying impunity." The two killings were the first reported deaths of Bahá'ís in Iran as a result of persecution since 1992.

In its resolution, the General Assembly called on Iran to "implement fully" the recommendations of a February 1996 report on religious intolerance, which found no legitimate basis for the continuing repression of Bahá'ís and other minority religious groups and called for their freedom of worship. The General Assembly likewise stated that the Bahá'ís and other religious minority groups including Christians should be "completely emancipated."

"For Iran's 300,000 member Bahá'í community, which is the largest religious minority in Iran, this call for complete emancipation is extremely significant," said Techeste Ahderom, the main representative to the United Nations of the Bahá'í International Community. "This represents the first time that the General Assembly, that body which is most representative of world opinion, has called directly for Iran to allow complete religious freedom for Bahá'ís and other religious minority groups.

"Accordingly, we are extremely grateful to the United Nations and its various agencies," said Mr. Ahderom. "Although there has been a recent change in government in Iran, and the head of that government has voiced a new commitment to upholding human rights, we feel that actions speak louder than words, and we are pleased that the international community apparently agrees."

Two New Deaths

Prof. Copithorne, whose official title is Special Representative of the Commission on Human Rights on the Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, said he received information that two Bahá'ís were killed in July 1997 under suspicious circumstances.

"Masha'llah Enayait, a 63-year-old Iranian Bahá'í, died on 4 July 1997 after being severely beaten while in custody in prison in Isfahan," wrote Prof. Copithorne. "He was arrested under circumstances that are not clear during a visit to his native village of Ardistan to attend a Bahá'í meeting. It was reported that on his death certificate, under the item 'cause of death', the doctor had entered 'will be known later'. Another Bahá'í, Shahram Reza'i, a conscript in the army, was shot in the head on 6 July 1997 by his superior officer on a military base close to Rasht. The officer concerned, who reportedly was responsible for weapons training, maintained that the bullets were fired in error and was released after a few days. It was said that because the dead soldier was a Bahá'í, the court excused the officer from paying the blood money normally required in such cases."

Prof. Copithorne's report also said that at least 12 Bahá'ís continue to be held in Iranian prisons because of their beliefs, and he expressed special concern over the cases of four Bahá'ís who are currently in prison and facing death sentences. These individuals are Bihnam Mithaqi and Kayvan Khalajabai, who have been imprisoned since 1989 and were sentenced to death in 1991, and Musa Talibi and Dhabihu'llah Mahrami, who were arrested in 1994 and 1995 respectively, charged with the crime of apostasy and sentenced to death. A fifth man, Ramadan-Ali Dhulfaqari, has also been condemned to death on the charge of apostasy. Although he was released from prison in 1994, the sentence still remains.

Prof. Copithorne took note of the convictions for apostasy, a charge that is sometimes applied when a Muslim converts to another religion. "The Special Representative considers that the right to change one's religion is a clearly established international human rights norm, as articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," he wrote. "The Special Representative urges the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran... to take appropriate steps to prevent future prosecutions for acts of religious conversion, whether or not they be categorized as apostasy."

Other forms of persecution against Iran's Bahá'ís also continue, said Prof. Copithorne. "Being active in the Bahá'í community and gathering for Bahá'í meetings are in practice considered offenses," he wrote. "Short-term detention of Bahá'ís, disregard of their private ownership of property, eviction from and confiscation of their houses and destruction of their holy places continue to be reported."

Since 1979, when the Islamic Revolutionary regime took power in Iran, Bahá'ís have been harassed and persecuted solely on account of their religious beliefs. More than 200 Bahá'ís have been killed, most in the early 1980s, and hundreds of others have spent time in prison. (As of December, at least 15 Bahá'ís were imprisoned solely for their religious beliefs.) Thousands more have been deprived of property and access to education, and the entire community has been deprived of the right to freedom of worship. 

Bahá'ís of the United States respond to Iranian President

WASHINGTON, DC - Responding to an invitation to the American people by Iranian President Mohammad Khatami for dialogue on the subject of closer ties between the people of Iran and the people of the United States, the Bahá'í community of the United States issued a statement welcoming the overture but suggesting that Iran's Bahá'ís "be granted their full rights as law-abiding citizens."

In a message issued on 13 January 1998 and published in the New York Times and Washington Post, Robert Henderson, the secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United States, said: "We are particularly encouraged by your assertion 'that religion and liberty are consistent and compatible.'"

"Your explicitly stated determination to fulfill the provisions of the Iranian Constitution and to establish the rule of law gives us hope that the freedom of the Bahá'í community in Iran openly to practice its religion will be guaranteed," Mr. Henderson said.

The statement suggested that the most recent UN General Assembly resolution, which calls for the emancipation of the Bahá'í community of Iran, should be implemented.