on the situation of the Baha’is in Iran
Baha’is are allowed to practice their faith freely in most parts of the world. In Iran, however, a community of some 300,000 Baha’is, the largest non-Muslim religious minority in the country, faces severe and pervasive religious persecution. While Baha’is are peaceful and politically impartial, the Iranian government adheres to an official policy of systematic repression and abuse against them. Between 1978 and 1998, over 200 Baha’is were killed, and thousands more were tortured and imprisoned.
While such executions have abated, the Baha’i community continues to face extensive human rights violations. Baha’is are subject to arbitrary interrogations, arrests, and imprisonment, and they suffer vandalism, raids, and attacks on their homes and businesses. Baha’is are denied government jobs and barred from attending university, and they are the targets of an ongoing campaign of vilification in the state-sponsored media.
OPA advocates for the rights of Baha’is in Iran, in hopes of hastening the day when Baha’is – and all citizens of Iran – will be guaranteed their freedom, dignity, and human rights.
1. Why are Baha’is persecuted in Iran?
The main reason that Baha’is are persecuted is theological. The Baha’i Faith began in 1844, and is therefore a religion that post-dates Islam. Many Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad is the last source of divine guidance and that Islam is the final religion of God. Most members of the clergy in Iran therefore view the Baha’i Faith as heresy and blasphemy, and many have instigated and promoted hatred and persecution of Baha’is since the founding of the religion.
In addition, some of the social teachings of the Baha’i Faith are seen as threatening to the clerical establishment in Iran. The Baha’i Faith does not have a clergy and holds that each individual has the responsibility and the privilege to investigate spiritual truth for himself or herself. In addition, Baha’is believe strongly in the equality of women and men.
Finally, Baha’is have, in some sense, been targeted simply for being a minority. The treatment of Baha’is in Iran is an example of scapegoating, a phenomenon that has occurred in many societies over time, in which ethnic or religious minorities are targeted in times of societal difficulties and are irrationally blamed for all manner of political, economic, and social problems.
2. Have Baha’is always been persecuted in Iran?
Yes. Baha’is have been persecuted since the Faith was founded in 1844 in Persia, now modern-day Iran.
In the first two decades of the Faith, approximately 20,000 Baha’is were killed by the forces of the Shah (king) and by mobs, instigated by the government or members of the clergy. This brutality included massacres and public executions, and many were imprisoned and tortured. Intense, state-sponsored persecution against Baha’is began to subside during the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, but discrimination and unequal treatment continued.
During the time of the Pahlavi Shahs (1925 – 1979), when Iran witnessed a fairly rapid period of development, the pressure on the Baha’is lessened. However, Baha’is still experienced discrimination in employment and were often denied opportunities. They were also subject to social hostilities, such as interpersonal violence, acts of arson, and the desecration of cemeteries, which usually went unaddressed by authorities. For instance, during the 1930s, the primary and secondary schools that had been established by the Baha’i community to serve Iran’s children were shut down by the Shah. In 1942, a well-known Baha’i doctor was publicly stabbed to death because he refused to recant his faith; his killers confessed to the police but were acquitted following the intervention of prominent clergymen. In another notable incident in 1955, a prominent cleric, with the knowledge and consent of the Shah, took to the radio and incited mobs to attack Baha’i places of worship, which resulted in the destruction of the Baha’i community’s National Center in Iran.
Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the persecution of Baha’is has intensified significantly. The persecution is systematic, severe, and government-sponsored. In 1991, a UN special representative unearthed a confidential government memorandum, issued by the Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council and signed by the Supreme Leader, which outlined a policy of official and pervasive government persecution against Baha’is. Several other government documents have come to light that demonstrate the implementation of this policy in various arenas, from barring Baha’is from attending universities to monitoring and collecting information on Baha’is, including schoolchildren, all the way down to the pre-school level.
More than 200 Baha’is have been killed since the revolution, the majority by execution, and thousands more have been imprisoned, many of them tortured. Baha’is are prohibited from working for the government, and private employers are pressured not to hire them. They are excluded from public universities, their marriages are not recognized, their holy places have been destroyed, and their cemeteries are desecrated. Baha’is continue to be arbitrarily detained, arrested, and imprisoned, and their homes, businesses, and persons are subject to raids and attacks. Unlike Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians, Baha’is are not recognized in the Iranian Constitution and are afforded no legal protection as persons. Their blood is considered “mobah,” meaning that it can be spilled with impunity, and that there is no redress for Baha’is who are the victims of crimes committed against them by the government or by individuals.
For more detailed information regarding the nature and scope of the persecution, please review the latest resources on the Related Documents and Resources page.
3. What are some significant contributions that the Baha’i community of Iran has made?
Some 5 million Baha’is throughout the world, from Andorra to Zimbabwe, hold a special place in their heart for Iran, as it is the birthplace of their religion. Despite the heavy persecution experienced by the Baha’is in Iran over the past 170 years, they have attempted to contribute to the betterment of their society. The following are a few prominent examples:
Baha’is in Iran have long sought to advance the status of women. One of the earliest champions of women’s rights in Iran was Tahirih, a prominent follower of the herald of the Baha’i Faith. Tahirih was a religious scholar and poet, and was ultimately sentenced to death by the Shah for her beliefs. Before being strangled to death in 1852, she stated: “You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women.”
The Baha’i community has also worked to promote education in Iran, establishing small village-level schools as early as the 1880s. It then established major primary and secondary schools in urban centers, including the well-known Tarbiyat School for Boys and the ground-breaking Tarbiyat School for Girls in Tehran in the early 1900s. These and other schools that sprang up around the country were open to all students; for instance, about half of the students in the Bahá’í schools in Tehran were not Baha’is. By 1920, about 10 percent of the estimated 28,000 primary and secondary school children in Iran were enrolled in Baha’i-run schools, according to one source. Most of the Baha’i schools were closed by government decree in the mid-1930s due to their Baha’i affiliation.
In the mid-20th century, significant Baha’i contributions to the life of Iranian society occurred in the area of the advancement of women, as illiteracy was virtually eliminated among Baha’i women with some achieving national recognition in the natural and social sciences, most notably in the fields of meteorology and child psychology. Individual Baha’is were responsible for contributions as varied as bringing to the city of Abadan the country’s first television station and the construction of Iran’s most recognizable monument, Shahyad Arch and Square, renamed after the revolution, Azadi Square (“Freedom Square”), which was designed by a Baha’i architect.
4. Why are Baha’is accused of espionage and brought up on national security charges?
In order to incite hatred and promote discrimination and violence against Baha’is, the Iranian government has attempted, for more than a century, to portray the Baha’is as pawns and spies of foreign powers. During the 19th century, the Baha’i Faith was maligned as an invention of the colonial powers with which Iran was struggling at the time: the British and the Russians. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, Baha’is were often accused of being British and Russian spies. By the mid-20th century, when Iran began to view the United States as an opposing power, Baha’is were accused of being American spies.
Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, when the Iranian government declared Israel to be its enemy, Baha’is have been accused of being Israeli spies. Those making this accusation often cite the fact that the Baha’i World Center is located in Haifa, Israel. The circumstances leading to the Baha’i World Center being established in this location occurred almost eighty years before the establishment of the state of Israel, when the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, in collaboration with the Shah of Persia, exiled Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i Faith, to the prison city of Akka, in Ottoman Palestine. Baha’u’llah died outside of Akka in 1892, and the Baha’i community then established its holy places in Akka and in Haifa, which is across Haifa Bay from Akka. According to the instructions of Baha’u’llah, the faith’s spiritual and administrative center has been located in the Haifa-Akka area since that time. The Baha’i World Center was legally recognized by the government during the British mandate period after World War I, and subsequently by the state of Israel. The Baha’i community maintains cordial relations with the government of Israel.
In addition to being accused of espionage, Baha’is are also accused of conspiring or acting against national security. These accusations are typical of the trumped-up charges that the government levels against those with whom it disagrees, including Baha’is, evangelical Christians, women’s rights activists, journalists, and human rights lawyers. Espionage and national security charges against Baha’is have no basis in fact, but are consistently employed by the government for the purpose of maligning the Baha’is and creating the impression that Baha’is are “others.” In its arrests, convictions, and sentencing of Baha’is, the government obscures the religious basis of its prosecutions of Baha’is and utilizes false charges of espionage and national security to create antipathy towards Baha’is.
5. Is it clear that the Baha’is are persecuted for religious reasons?
Yes. As noted above, there is a clear and well-documented governmental policy in place to persecute individuals who are Baha’is, solely on the basis of their adherence to the Baha’i Faith.
Moreover, while Baha’is are routinely brought up on false charges related to national security and espionage, there have also been many instances in which Baha’is were convicted and sentenced on charges of apostasy. While apostasy denotes conversion from one faith to another, these charges have been leveled against Baha’is who were born and raised in Baha’i families, as the government and clergy in Iran consider the Baha’i Faith itself to be heresy against Islam. These apostasy charges are based entirely on religious affiliation.
There have also been countless cases in which imprisoned Baha’is are pressured to renounce their faith and told that, if they will simply sign a document stating that they recant their belief in the Baha’i Faith and declare themselves to be Muslims, they will be allowed to go free and their property will be restored to them. Baha’is do not, as a matter of principle, deny their faith. As a result, many of them have served and some are currently serving long prison sentences and, since the 1979 Revolution, approximately 200 have been executed. These offers to deny their faith and have their freedom restored clearly evidence the religious basis of the imprisonment of Baha’is.
6. What is the response of the Baha’i community in Iran to the persecution?
Baha’is, as a matter of principle, are law-abiding and obedient to the government of the land in which they live. Baha’is do not engage in violence, even in response to oppression, and, while Baha’is strive to be civically informed and engaged, they do not involve themselves in partisan politics. Baha’is around the world, including Baha’is in Iran, aim to be upright, loyal, and peaceful citizens that serve their communities and their societies. Baha’is who experience persecution in Iran strive to respond with patience, forbearance, and forgiveness towards those who persecute them, and to demonstrate, through their words and their actions, a just and unifying standard of behavior.
7. What is the effect of international attention and pressure regarding the persecution of the Baha’is in Iran?
The effect is great and should not be underestimated. As noted above, during the 1979 Revolution and in the years immediately following it, over two hundred Baha’is were killed, the majority by execution, and thousands more were imprisoned, many of them tortured. This situation precipitated an international outcry, including strong and repeated condemnation of the persecution from the US government and other governments, the United Nations, and civil society around the world. By the late 1980s, this bloodshed had subsided, and it has not recurred since.
Despite its protestations to the contrary, the government of Iran is actually quite sensitive to global public opinion. Many observers believe that the international attention and pressure on Iran during the 1980s, as well as consistent monitoring, awareness-raising, and condemnation of the situation since then, is the primary reason that the plight of the Baha’is has improved somewhat and that the persecution has not returned to the levels seen during and immediately after the Revolution. Of course, Baha’is are still arbitrarily arrested, detained, and imprisoned, and they continue to toil under immense economic and social pressure. However, it is very likely that the continued attention and pressure on Iran since the 1980s has prevented the situation from becoming even worse.
In addition, as many prisoners of conscience around the world have noted, international attention can improve their plight in prison, decreasing the amount of physical abuse they endure, increasing the amount of food they receive, and improving their chances for receiving medical treatment. This is often the case for Baha’i prisoners in Iran as well. In many instances, a news story or a governmental statement regarding a particular prisoner can result in greater caution on the part of the government and thus better treatment for the prisoner. In addition, many Baha’i prisoners have reported that, simply knowing that people around the world are raising awareness of their plight greatly improves their spirits and helps give them the strength to carry on.
8. What is the attitude of the Iranian people toward Baha’is?
The government of Iran, elements of the clergy, and some small percentage of the Iranian population are hostile towards the Baha’is and work to persecute and discriminate against them. On the whole, however, the people of Iran bear no ill will towards the Baha’is and would like to see all citizens of Iran, Baha’is included, treated with dignity and respect. In fact, a great many Iranians are extremely sympathetic towards the Baha’is and have risked their own safety to protect their Baha’i friends and neighbors, and to help them support themselves and their families.
In the years since the Islamic Revolution, the people of Iran have been subjected to virulent, false, hateful, and near-constant propaganda against Baha’is, which the government and clergy disseminate through Iran’s state-controlled media. However, the influence of this propaganda has steadily declined as Iranians citizens have gained access to the Internet and thereby to independent and credible sources of information about Baha’is. The Iranian government has continuously undermined its own credibility through its treatment of several other social groups in the country. In recent years, a number of prominent Iranians, both within and outside Iran, have publicly decried the persecution of the Baha’is and spoken out for their rights.
9. Why do Baha’is stay in Iran?
Baha’is in Iran are Iranians. They love their country, want to contribute to its development, and long for its prosperity. Of course, in the years since the 1979 Revolution, many Baha’is, facing danger to themselves and their families, have been forced to leave Iran and settle in other countries. But, in general, Baha’is in Iran wish to stay in Iran, and the vast majority of them do so. They strive to serve their neighbors and their communities, and to educate themselves and develop their skills and their capacities, so that, when the day comes when they are granted their human rights and their freedom, they will be ready to work side-by-side with their fellow citizens to contribute to the future of Iran.
10. What can be done to support the Baha’is of Iran?
Perhaps the most important thing that can be done is to raise awareness of the situation with one’s friends, family, coworkers, and other contacts. To learn more about specific actions that can be taken to support the Baha’is of Iran, see the Get Involved page.
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