By Steve Jacobs
More than 250 Australian health practitioners have signed an open letter expressing their concern
about the human rights pressures faced by the Bahai community in Iran that have escalated amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Joobin Hooshmand, an ophthalmology registrar working with NSW Health, co-ordinated the project alongside a number of Bahai practitioners and their colleagues.
The signatories, mostly Bahais but also their friends and colleagues, include dentists, GPs, nurses, optometrists, paramedics, pharmacists, physiotherapists, psychologists and chiropractors. They come from every state and territory.
The Bahai community is Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority and has been persecuted since the 1979 Revolution.
The open letter, addressed to the Iranian authorities, invites Australian registered health practitioners to add their names as signatories.
The letter was drafted and uploaded online as a form for health practitioners to sign.
“In recent weeks, at least 77 Bahais across eight provinces of Iran have been arrested, summoned to court, tried, sentenced to jail, imprisoned or re-incarcerated,” it notes.
“In the city of Shiraz alone, 40 Bahais have been summoned to court, sentences of up to 13 years have been imposed, and a court official has threatened to ‘uproot’ the Bahais from the city.”
Iran has the Middle East’s worst outbreak with more than 270,000 confirmed cases.
Addressing the risks facing Bahais in Iranian jails, the open letter says: “In the context of the escalating pandemic in Iran, all prisoners face a significant risk of contracting COVID-19 due to overcrowded and unhygienic prison conditions.
“These actions are directly contrary to the widespread international calls for the release of prisoners of conscience in Iran due to the risk of COVID-19 infection in prisons.
“At a time when every government should be focusing on protecting all its citizens, these Bahais, whose lives and livelihoods are under great strain, are being targeted solely due to their faith.”
Dr Hooshmand, who was born in Shiraz, came to Australia as a refugee at 18 to study medicine as Bahais are barred from attending university in his country of birth.
He took up the letter initiative after hearing about the plight of the Bahais in Shiraz.
“These are innocent people whose health is needlessly being put at risk, and it brings back memories of injustices faced for more than 40 years by Bahais in Iran due to religious bigotry and prejudice,” he said.
“We want them to know that, even in the midst of a global health crisis, their suffering is not invisible and it needs to come to an end.”
The letter calls for “the release of all those who have been imprisoned due to their faith, and an end to the campaign of harassment and intimidation of Bahai citizens in Iran, so that they can
fully participate in the life of society as equals with their compatriots”.
One of the signatories, Andre Wattiaux, is medical director at the Gold Coast Public Health Unit and part of the team engaged in the public health response to the pandemic on the Gold Coast.
Speaking about the open letter, Dr Wattiaux, who is also a Bahai, said: “Having learnt about the recent wave of religious persecution faced by the Bahai community in Iran, particularly during this global health crisis, it seemed unfathomable that a government would place innocent citizens at such risk and in this way.
“The Bahais targeted in Iran are innocent of any crime and certainly do not belong in prison.”
Australian film director Baz Luhrmann referred to his work in a tweet in March saying that Dr Wattiaux was “working around the clock with his team to fight the virus in … Queensland [and] has also been working with our entire company here”.
Quoting Dr Wattiaux, he said: “Our current internationally shared circumstances are pushing us to accept that we are all one family living in a single world.”