By Tracey Shelton
Nima Moradi says he is “lucky and thankful” to be raising his two children in Australia.
Growing up in Iran as a child of the Baha’i faith, Mr Moradi was often beaten at school.
He was one of five Baha’i children who would cower each morning as they were lined up for assemblies at his school in the Islamic Republic.
He said the principal would lecture the children on the evils of the US, Israel and the “dirty” Baha’i faith.
“If you beat them up it’s a good thing, you get a reward,” Mr Moradi recalled the principal telling them.
“I remember in the schoolyard, out of nowhere, somebody would just come and kick you in the back and, you know, push and shove you.”
Followers of the Baha’i faith — Iran’s largest minority outside of Islam — have faced a long history of persecution and discrimination.
Now Mr Moradi’s relatives back in Iran are caught in a new wave of home raids, land seizures and arrests as Iran went back into coronavirus lockdown in November.
Baha’i families here in Australia are asking the Australian Government and the international community for help.
Who are the Baha’is?
The Baha’i Faith was founded in 19th century Iran by two central figures. The founder, Baha’u’llah, was exiled from the country while ‘His Herald’, the Bab, was executed by government authorities.
Baha’is are estimated to number 6 million worldwide, including 20,000 in Australia.
Although there are more than 300,000 in Iran, they are not recognised among the minority religions protected in the constitution, which include Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism.
Instead they are viewed as ‘infidels’, and some of their beliefs — such as the equality of women — have put them at odds with Islamic clerics.
Baha’is describe their beliefs as centring around truthfulness, equality and human rights with an emphasis on the essential worth of all religions.
They hold strong beliefs in the value of community service and education, but they have long been forbidden to pursue higher education in Iran and they are prohibited by law from teaching and practicing their faith.
Hundreds have been arrested in recent years, including their entire religious leadership, according to reports by the UN and human rights groups.
The US International Religious Freedom Report of 2009 said in Iran, “according to law, Baha’i blood is considered mobah, meaning it can be spilled with impunity”.
Last year, the Iranian Government removed the option to list “other” as a religion on national ID cards — which are required to obtain a driver’s license, to open a bank account, and to conduct other basic official transactions.
This change has forced Iranian Baha’is to either “lie about their religious identity” or be blocked from essential services, according to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
The Australian Baha’i community said amid the COVID-19 lockdowns, home raids had escalated and many of their relatives had been detained and were being held in crowded prisons infested with coronavirus.
The Iranian ministries of Science, Research and Technology, Culture and Islamic Guidance, Agriculture-Jihad and Foreign Affairs as well as several universities did not reply to the ABC’s requests for comment.
The Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Canberra has also been approached for comment.
‘How much damage can a piano do to national security?’
Mr Moradi was 14 years old when his family fled Iran in secret in a night of chaos and gunfire, unable to say goodbye to even their closest friends and relatives.
Now a painter in Sydney with a family of his own, he is still plagued with guilt over those left behind.
In August, his uncle and aunt were arrested and are still held without charge, leaving his young cousins in the care of their elderly grandmother.
The family home was raided by police, who took everything from books and valuables to the family vehicle and even his 15-year-old cousin’s piano.
“She is so mature and passionate about her piano,” said Mr Moradi of his cousin who would often post her music on Instagram.
“She’s just a young girl. How much damage can a piano do to national security?”
Mr Moradi’s grandfather was imprisoned when his uncle was a boy.
He was initially sentenced to death but this was later reduced to 20 years. His family said he lost sight in one eye due to the physical abuse he suffered in prison.
“[My uncle] had to go to jail to visit his dad when he was a kid and now his own kids are coming to visit him in jail,” he said.
“So really, this has been going on their whole lives.”
‘Persecuted from the cradle to the grave’
Mr Moradi said the pressure on Baha’i families across Iran was escalating.
“It’s a psychological game,” he told the ABC.
“They’re trying to put the Baha’is in this dark place but we have to shed light on that. We can’t let them get away with it.”
In a recent group chat via Zoom, the ABC spoke to several families from the Australian Baha’i community.
The discussion was intense and emotional as one by one they told their stories of being barred from education, their homes set on fire or violently raided by police, relatives arrested or executed and the desecration of the graves of loved ones.
“The Baha’is have been systematically persecuted from the cradle to the grave in an attempt to eliminate the entire Baha’i community through its gradual strangulation,” said Mehrzad Mumtahan, an artist and activist from Sydney.
He described the past 40 years as “a silent war” against this peaceful religious community.
“The grave of my mother and of my brother, all have been demolished and this has happened to all the Baha’i,” said accountant Shayesteh Sabet, who joined the group conversation with her husband Mehran, an electronic engineer.
“I was not there when they passed away and I had dreamed of going back to visit their graves.”
She spoke emotionally about the recent arrest of her sister-in-law Shahnaz, who was sentenced to two years in prison.
Mr Sabet described his sister as “extremely kind, caring and hard working”.
She was involved in an education program for Afghan children who were not allowed to attend school in Iran as well as community work supporting widows.
Her hairdressing business had already been shut down by authorities, leaving her without an income to support their elderly mother.
The house was raided multiple times and finally she was arrested in October.
The incident was a poignant reminder of their cousin who was among 16 young women from Shiraz, a city in southern Iran, who were executed on similar charges in 1983, along with other relatives, friends and teachers.
Mrs Sabet broke down in tears as she spoke of that period, during which the family’s dearly loved grandfather also died in prison after being refused medical treatment.
The group related how stones would frequently be thrown at their childhood homes back in Iran, smashing windows or sometimes injuring them as they played outside.
Two sisters who joined the Zoom conversation, and who asked to be identified only as Neda and Ella to protect family imprisoned in Iran, said when they were children, their parents would often receive threatening calls through the night after their father had left for his night shift.
Unknown men on the other end of the line would say they were coming to rape their young children while he was gone.
They moved from city to city amid threats and harassment. After their house was one of 300 Baha’i homes set on fire in Shiraz in 1978, they fled the country, eventually settling in Australia in the 1980s.
Their newly engaged cousin along with the husband of another cousin with two young children are the latest family members to be arrested in recent months.
“Every day we receive the news from Iran of arrests — my teacher, my friend, my uncle, my cousin, they took him,” Neda said.
She said all Baha’i families are in the same situation.
“[Our relatives in Iran] speak of the psychological torture of never knowing when it’s going to happen,” said Ella.
“There is a constant feeling of something coming. They are always afraid … They don’t know who is behind the door or what they are going to do.”
Australian Members of Parliament speak out
Sharon Claydon, Member of the House of Representatives for Newcastle, and fellow representatives have spoken in Parliament several times to urge the Australian Government to put pressure on Tehran to ease “prejudice and persecution” against the Baha’is.
“I would hope there are few humans on the planet that wouldn’t be moved by that kind of ongoing denial of basic civil liberties and human rights,” she told the ABC.
“Australia has a responsibility to call out atrocities across the world wherever we see it.”
Ms Claydon, along with other representatives, praised the Baha’i community for commitment to community service in their various electorates.
In 1983, the Australian government instituted a special humanitarian assistance program for members of the Baha’i faith fleeing religious persecution.
Venus Khalessi of the Australian Baha’i Community said the Government has continued to be “incredibly supportive”.
“[In December], at the UN General Assembly, Australia co-sponsored a resolution, which highlighted the human rights situation in Iran, and specifically mentioned the situation of the Baha’i community,” Ms Khalessi said.
She urged the Government to continue to raise these issues in both national and international fora.
“There’s a lot of concern amongst family members who are now a part of the fabric of Australian society, because what they have experienced is actually generations of persecution.”
A Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson said: “Australia has raised its concerns for the situation of Baha’i and other religious minorities in Iran, including during bilateral Human Rights Dialogues with the Iranian Government and in multilateral fora.”