By: Naseem Kourosh
This past April, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif declared, “We do not jail people for their opinions.” The facts, however, tell a different story. Iran is one of the world’s worst violators of human rights, executing startling numbers of its citizens; engaging in systematic oppression of women; targeting political dissidents and human rights defenders; and persecuting ethnic and religious minorities. Iran routinely imprisons so many of its citizens for their opinions and beliefs that, in recent years, it has been estimated that prisoners of conscience in Iran number in the thousands, and Iran has been ranked as the world’s second worst jailer of journalists. Mr. Zarif’s declaration was particularly ironic, coming just two weeks before a somber anniversary for the Baha’i community: May 14, 2015 marked seven years since seven Baha’i leaders had been imprisoned in Iran.
The Baha’i community is Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority, with an estimated 300,000 members. The UN Special Rapporteur on the freedom of religion or belief has called the plight of the Baha’is in Iran one of the clearest cases of state-sponsored persecution, and the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran has labeled the Baha’is the most persecuted religious minority in Iran. The oppression of Iran’s Baha’i community—a non-violent, peaceful minority community that eschews partisan politics—is an open-and-shut case of persecuting people for their beliefs. The community’s seven leaders are among 100 Baha’is in Iran who have committed no crime and have been jailed for their opinions.
The seven members of the former ad hoc leadership group of the Baha’i community of Iran, known as the “Yaran-i-Iran,” or Friends of Iran, were arrested in May of 2008. They were then held in solitary confinement, denied any semblance of due process, convicted on several baseless charges, including espionage and “corruption on earth,” and ultimately sentenced to 20 years in prison—the longest of any prisoners of conscience in Iran. Their lawyer, Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, as well as countless governments and NGOs, concluded that there was no evidence against the seven and that they had been imprisoned for no other reason than their faith.
Throughout the month of May, in a global campaign featuring public events, official statements, and a social media push using the hashtag #7Bahais7years, supporters of human rights around the world expressed their outrage at the continuing imprisonment of these seven leaders and the Iranian government’s relentless persecution of the country’s Baha’i community.
While Baha’is have faced persecution since the Baha’i Faith was founded in mid-nineteenth century Persia, with the arrival of the Islamic Revolution of 1979, this persecution became systematic, state-sponsored, and severe. Thousands of Baha’is were imprisoned, many of them tortured, and—as if to remove any doubt regarding the religious animus behind their imprisonment—they were consistently told that they would be immediately released if they would convert to Islam. During the first several years after the revolution, over 200 Baha’is were killed, the majority by execution. Many of the families of these executed Baha’is reported that they were forced to pay the government for the bullets that killed their loved ones.
Following an international outcry in the 1980s, the regime changed tactics. It gradually stopped killing Baha’is and embarked on a policy of quiet economic and social strangulation of the community. Indeed, a 1991 secret government memorandum, signed by the Supreme Leader of Iran and later exposed by a United Nations Special Representative on Iran, stated that it was official government policy to deal with Baha’is in such a way that their progress and development would be blocked.
Indeed, the life of a Baha’i in Iran can fairly be termed cradle-to-grave persecution. Baha’i schoolchildren are harassed and pressured to recant their faith. Baha’i youth are excluded from the nation’s university system, and even the informal, alternative system of education that the Baha’i community has established for its youth—the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education—has been the target of repeated crackdowns.
As adults, Baha’is are barred from government employment, private employers are pressured not to hire them, and they are often denied business licenses. Baha’i marriages are not recognized, Baha’i holy places are destroyed, and Baha’is are the target of a steady drumbeat of hateful and inflammatory propaganda in state-sponsored media outlets. They are arbitrarily arrested and detained, their homes and businesses are raided, and their property is confiscated without compensation. They are also denied redress for violent attacks; unlike other religious minorities in Iran, they are not recognized under the constitution, and their blood is considered “mobah,” which means it can be spilled with impunity.
Even deceased Baha’is can find no peace, as Baha’i cemeteries are often desecrated. Over 40 Baha’i cemeteries have been attacked since 2005, and the Revolutionary Guard is currently demolishing a Baha’i cemetery in Shiraz that housed over 900 graves in order to build a cultural and sports complex.
Many have noted that the Baha’is, as the favorite target of the regime, are something of a bellwether for the broader human rights situation. As one prominent Iran scholar stated, “Watch the fate of the Iranian Baha’is carefully. The day they are free to practice their religion without fear, Iranians at large will have finally secured their civil liberties.” The chair and co-chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom have likewise stated, “In the end, as go the Baha’is, so go freedom's prospects in Iran.” It is vital to continue advocating for the rights of Baha’is and for the rights of all Iranians—particularly those who have been jailed for their opinions.
On this seventh anniversary of the imprisonment of the seven Baha’i leaders in Iran, it is time to call for their release and the release of all prisoners of conscience, and to speak out for religious freedom and human rights for all the people of Iran.
Naseem Kourosh is the Human Rights Officer at the Office of Public Affairs of the Baha’is of the United States, located in Washington, DC.
This piece was originally authored on June 22, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.