Iran’s Prosecutor General, Ayatollah Qorban-Ali Dorri-Najafabadi, has declared that the very expression of affiliation to the Bahá’í faith is illegal, writes Nazila Ghanea.
Nazila Ghanea for the Telegraph (UK)
What connects an academic, a blogger, a Nobel prize winner, a postgraduate researcher, a cyber feminist, a journalist and a woman who let her head covering slip? The answer? They have all had their freedom to express themselves violated. They have all been imprisoned, flogged and fined in Iran.
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Today, Iran severely restricts such freedom. Human Rights Watch, the UN Secretary General and numerous others have recently observed an escalation in attempts to silence Iranians who have something to say.
But now a new embargo on freedom of expression has formally been announced. Iran’s Prosecutor General, Ayatollah Qorban-Ali Dorri-Najafabadi, has declared that the very expression of affiliation to the Bahá’í faith is illegal. This was communicated in a letter to the Minister of Intelligence, Ghulam-Husayn Ejeyee, who needs no encouragement to violate rights. Human Rights Watch named him one of Iran’s ‘Ministers of Murder’ four years ago.
According to the Prosecutor General , everyone is free to have his own belief and faith. “However, no expression or declaration in order to disparage the thought of others, nor any attempt to teach them resulting in deception and agitation of minds is permitted.”
He goes on to determine that “the administration of the wayward Baha’i sect at all levels is illegal and forbidden … their danger to national security is documented and well-established.”
A few days later, the Prosecutor General made the rather fantastic claim that Bahá’ís in Iran are provided with all facilities afforded other Iranian citizens, and are respected as human beings, “but not as insiders, spies, or a political grouplet supported by Britain and Israel to cause disturbance in Iran”. Much kindness had always been shown Bahá’í citizens of Iran, he asserted, but there was “opposition to the relations of many of them with the enemies of the Iranian nation and particularly with Israel.”
The spurious nature of such assertions are obvious to anyone with the most basic knowledge of the Bahá’í faith, the persecution it has faced in Iran on religious grounds for more than a century, and the historical events which led to its Prophet being banished in 1868 to a remote corner of the Ottoman empire, which now happens to sit within the borders of modern-day Israel.
The broader implication of the Prosecutor General’s statement, however, is that it is possible to legally separate out a (generous) respect of religion or belief from its (dangerous) expression or declaration. This is apparently on the grounds that such expression would disparage, deceive and agitate others, destroying the “edifice of the Iranian belief system” and threatening “national well-being and welfare”.
What we are being told, therefore, is that the Iranian belief system is unitary and very vulnerable to the free expression of some bloggers, some morally loose women and some journalists – but not all Bahá’ís, all 300,000 of them that make up Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority.
Human Rights instruments depart from this perspective. How is it possible to single out one religious community and deny it any expression of its values? How can full religious freedom go hand in hand with the criminalisation of any expression or activity – personal or public – that may flow from it? UN standards recognise freedom of thought, conscience and religion as being far-reaching and profound; they encompass freedom of thought on all matters, personal conviction and the commitment to religion or belief, whether manifested individually or in community with others. The fact that the protection of religion or belief necessarily includes the protection of its expression is beyond dispute.
That said, it is the individual’s having, adopting or changing a religion or belief that is absolute. Manifestation can be limited when prescribed by law and necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
The Prosecutor General claims that all religious expression by Bahá’ís – regardless of what form it takes, what medium it uses and whether it is expressed in worship, observance, practice or teaching – is dangerous and therefore illegal. He does not demonstrate exactly what need this outright criminalisation serves, nor does he convince us why it is necessary and proportionate. The UN states that any limitations placed on this right “should not involve discriminatory purposes or be applied in a discriminatory manner”. It would be hard in this case to claim it is otherwise. It would also be hard to not be alarmed at this development, considering UN evidence that the Iranian government instructed all of its agencies back in October 2005 to identify and monitor the activities of every single Bahá’í in Iran.
If Iran imagines that the singling out of a religious minority for criminalisation – whilst asserting a policy of kindness and respect towards it – can possibly be believable, then why was its most recent report to the UN Human Rights Committee submitted more than 17 years ago? Perhaps the Prosecutor General has forgotten that on that occasion the Human Rights Committee criticised Iran in no uncertain terms, stating that the Committee was “particularly disturbed about the extent of discrimination against followers of non-recognized religions, notably the Baha’is, whose rights under the Covenant are subject to extremely severe restrictions. In the foregoing connection, the Committee received no satisfactory answer regarding the destruction of places of worship or cemeteries and the systematic persecution, harassment and discrimination of the Baha’is, which is in clear contradiction with the provisions of the Covenant.”
The outright prohibition on all declaration or expression of Bahá’í belief along with the ban on all their organisational structures, is all the more devastating for a community which does not have a clerical religious structure and is entering its thirty-first year of severe persecution.
Iran’s criminalisation of the freedom of expression rights of hundreds of its Bahá’í citizens does not bode well for the wider cause of opinion, thought and conscience. In September last year, International PEN expressed alarm at increasing and widespread violations. The situation has just got a lot worse.
Dr Nazila Ghanea is a Lecturer in International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford. She serves as the Editor-in-Chief of the international journal of Religion and Human Rights.