Iran: Bahais under attack

Pretty bad times to be part of an ethnic or religious minority in Iran, it seems. From the New York Times, June 1:

Members of the Bahai religious minority in Iran said this week that the government had recently intensified a campaign of arrests, raids and propaganda that was aimed at eradicating their religion in Iran, the country of its birth.

On May 19, Iranian security officials arrested 54 Bahais in the city of Shiraz who were involved in a community service project, many of them in their teens and early 20’s, said diplomatic officials and Bahai officials outside of Iran.

They were not charged and all but three were released within six days, these officials said.

It was the largest mass arrest of Bahais since the 1980’s, when thousands of them were imprisoned and more than 200 were executed by the new Islamic government.

The developments have alarmed human rights monitors at the United Nations, who say that since December, the government newspaper in Tehran has published more than 30 articles denigrating the Bahai faith — even accusing Bahais of sacrificing Muslim children on holy days. The arrests coincided with raids on six Bahai homes, in which notebooks, documents and computers were confiscated. More than 70 other Bahais have been arrested since January 2005 in smaller clusters, and some are still being held, the monitors said.

“We see a pattern emerging that is quite ominous,” said Bani Dugal, who represents the Bahai International Community at the United Nations, where religious and some other groups have consultative status. “It’s basically trying to create terror in the Bahai community, and also to win over the Iranian population to accept it.”

Mohammad Mohammadi, press secretary for Iran’s mission to the United Nations, said he had no information about arrests of Bahais and would not be able to respond until Monday because of an Iranian holiday this week.

The Bahais are the largest religious minority in Iran, with about 300,000 members there. There are five million worldwide. They believe that humanity is one race, that men and women are equal and that all religions and prophets are derived from the same source, God.

They have suffered successive waves of persecution in Iran since their faith was founded there in the mid-1800’s by a Persian nobleman considered by the Bahais to be a messenger of God. That belief violates the Islamic teaching that God sent many prophets before Muhammad, but none afterward. The Bahai are discriminated against in some other Muslim countries, where they are far less numerous than in Iran.

Unlike Jews and Christians, who have seats in Iran’s Parliament set aside for them as religious minorities, Bahais in Iran are considered “unprotected infidels,” said Kit Bigelow, director for external affairs of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahais of the United States. Bahais are not permitted to attend college, work for the government or practice their faith openly.

She called the recent arrests “the latest step in the implementation of a strategy on the part of the Iranian government to eliminate the Bahai community.”

Asma Jahangir, the United Nations special rapporteur who monitors freedom of religion for the Commission on Human Rights, announced in March that she had just learned about a confidential letter from the chairman of the command headquarters of Iran’s armed forces instructing government agencies to identify all Bahais and monitor their activities.

Ms. Jahangir said the letter was sent on Oct. 29, 2005, on the orders of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Ms. Jahangir said in a statement in March that she was concerned that “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 Bahai faith, in violation of international standards.”

Mr. Mohammadi, the Iranian press secretary, said he could not confirm whether such a document existed.

Azedah Perry, a Bahai in North Carolina, said that among the 54 arrested in May were 3 of her nieces, ages 17, 18 and 21. She spoke by telephone with her nieces after their release, and said they told her they were interrogated during their six days in prison, but tried to keep their morale up by praying and singing. She said when they were arrested, they were volunteering in a community service project at several public schools. She said they were teaching underprivileged children English, science and mathematics — not the Bahai faith — and had permission letters from the local Islamic council in their pockets.

Last year, Mrs. Perry’s brother-in-law in Shiraz was taken by armed Iranian guards from his home and held for six weeks in a prison in Tehran with several other Bahai men before being released, Mrs. Perry said.

“It’s hard to live in such a situation,” she said. “You don’t know what will happen each day. The day they attacked my sister’s house, she was in her bedroom and she saw guards with guns in her backyard.”

The United States Congress is considering a resolution that would condemn the Iranian government for repressing Bahais and call on President Bush to make the abuse of Bahais a significant factor in United States foreign policy.

Representative Mark Steven Kirk, an Illinois Republican who co-sponsored the resolution with Representative Tom Lantos of California, said, “My fear is that if the regime leads the country into a confrontation with the West, it will be the cover for a great human rights crime, as happened before.”

Bahais, with roots in Sufism and an ethic of universalism, are a favorite whipping boy for the orthodox throughout the Islamic world. IRIN reported May 16 that judicial authorities in Egypt overturned a ruling to allow official recognition of the Bahai faith. Dubious charges of Bahai background were recently used against him by opponents of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. See WW4 REPORT #88.

See our last post on Iran.