May 11, 2017
By Kristina Arriaga
What will Iran’s May 19 presidential election mean for the Baha’i, the country’s largest non-Muslim religious group? Given that every candidate was handpicked by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s Guardian Council, the answer is simple: Nothing good.
The Islamic Republic considers the Baha’i faith heretical because it was founded after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, who is perceived in Islam as the final prophet. Since its founding 1979, the Iranian regime has taken this theological assertion to a violent extreme and used it to intensify persecution of Baha’i believers.
Discrimination against this community, which numbers around 300,000, is codified into Iranian law. The group is banned from careers in the military and is often denied other employment since many companies don’t want to run afoul of the authorities. Baha’is cannot legally leave property to their heirs.
Tehran makes it impossible for the Baha’i to practice their faith openly. Unlike other minority religious groups such as Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians, Baha’is aren’t recognized in the Iranian Constitution. They are therefore legally forbidden from establishing places of worship or independent religious associations.
Government officials at all levels won’t recognize Baha’i marriages as they do for Muslims, Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians, and make it almost impossible for Baha’is to obtain death certificates. Baha’i cemeteries, holy places and community properties often are confiscated or desecrated. Many religious sites have been demolished, primarily by elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
But employment and religious worship barriers are the least of the Baha’is problems. Since 1979, Iran’s security and intelligence agencies have executed more than 200 Baha’i leaders. Over the past year, pro-government media outlets have published hundreds of articles that vilify the Baha’i and encourage violence against them. In September, two men stabbed to death Farhang Amiri, a Baha’i member, outside of his home in Yazd in central Iran. Both men confessed to killing him for being an “apostate.”
While the government rarely brings these attackers to justice, it routinely arrests and jails innocent Baha’is. Nearly 1,000 Baha’is have been arbitrarily arrested over the past decade alone. At least 90 remain imprisoned for religious “crimes.” Over the past year alone, dozens have been arrested.
Sunday marks the ninth anniversary of the imprisonment of six of the “Baha’i 7”: Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeid Rezaie, Behrouz Tavakkoli, Vahid Tizfahm and Fariba Kamalabadi. These Baha’i leaders are serving 20-year sentences based on groundless charges ranging from espionage to “corruption on the earth.” Thanks to a 2013 change in Iran’s penal code that reportedly allows sentences to be served concurrently, not consecutively, all seven should be released next year. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, or USCIRF, on which I serve, urges their immediate release.
I am personally working on behalf of the two female members of the Baha’i 7, Ms. Kamalabadi and Mahvash Sabet. Ms. Sabet is a 64-year-old educator with two grown children. Fired from her job as a school principal for her religious faith, she joined an underground teaching movement for fellow Baha’is, the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education, where she worked for 15 years before her arrest.
Ms. Kamalabadi is a 54-year-old psychologist, teacher and mother of three. Banned as a Baha’i from studying at a public university, she obtained a master’s degree from the Advanced Baha’i Studies Institute, where she joined Ms. Sabet to teach Baha’i youth. Along with the other five imprisoned Baha’i leaders, both of these women have languished in prison for nearly a decade in deplorable conditions.
Iran’s election next week holds little hope for the Baha’is or for other religious minorities. It holds scant hope for the hundreds of Sunni and Sufi Muslims and Christians incarcerated for religious reasons, including Maryam Naghash Zargaran, on whose behalf USCIRF Commissioner Cliff May is advocating. And it holds no hope for Jews and Zoroastrians, who also suffer discrimination.
How will we know when real change arrives? We will know when Tehran immediately releases the Baha’i 7 and all other religious prisoners of conscience, and when it replaces religious repression with religious freedom for every Iranian.
Ms. Arriaga serves as a commissioner at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.