Previous efforts to evict the Baha’i farmers involved violence and the destruction of fields and some 50 homes.
“It’s heartbreaking. That’s our country. We were born there. We belong there,” said Melbourne driving instructor Soori Naeimi Iveli, who said her family was violently forced from land in Ivel when she was five years old.
She migrated to Australia after years of displacement in Iran.
“I just want to thank all the Australian and New Zealand farmers who have kindly supported this move to reclaim our land,” she said, adding she was also grateful for the “safety and security” life in Australia has given her family.
Followers of the Baha’i faith — Iran’s largest minority outside of Islam — have faced
a long history of persecution and discrimination. Hundreds have been arrested in recent years, according to reports by the UN and human rights groups.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) this week condemned the Iranian government’s “alarming escalation of persecution targeting Baha’is in Iran”.
The report said over the past month, home raids escalated across the country, 20 community members were arrested and burials for deceased community members were blocked in a designated section of a cemetery in Tehran.
The recent court order also dismissed all prior claims filed against the destruction of 50 houses and other property in Ivel.(Supplied)
The Iranian government did not respond directly to questions regarding the court decision, but in a statement to the ABC the embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Canberra said while Baha’ism was “rejected” as an official religion, “people of Iran, regardless of their ethnicity, enjoy equal rights”.
The statement denied reports of arrests of Baha’is and denial of education based on faith.
“It is surprising that, out of all matters, you merely posed interest to the claims of Baha’is in the face of all the injustices done against the people of Iran, including unlawful and unilateral sanctions, especially in the time of the fatal pandemic that has murdered many Iranians, including Baha’is,” the statement said.
‘If we don’t say anything, we know what’s going to happen’
Claire Booth, a Dubbo farmer, lawyer and mother, has little time to spare, but when she heard of the plight of Baha’i farmers she was “horrified” and decided to try to help.
Ms Booth had studied law with Baha’i students some years ago and said she was moved by their kindness and charity.
“I didn’t know you could be a law student and be lovely,” she said with a laugh.
“I felt quite strongly that these people that I’d met many years ago are very kind, and the basis of their faith is to do no harm, but basically they’re being persecuted … if we don’t say anything, we know what’s going to happen.”
Baha’i families have lived and worked the land in Ivel for around 160 years.(Supplied: Arsalan Sadeghi Iveli)
Ms Booth helped draft the open letter and delivered a video presentation released on social media.
As others signed on, she said they were shocked by the “brutality and senselessness” of the situation but were also moved on a personal level as fellow farmers.
“Why are they different to us? It would be very difficult for me to imagine that I’d be persecuted on the basis of my religion. However, I’m assuming at some stage, these guys would have thought the same thing.”
She said many of those who signed the letter have experienced disasters of their own from drought to bush fires, floods and cyclones.
“And then to have your legitimacy of where you farm threatened militarily, I just can’t even understand how awful that would be.”
Kerry Jonsson, a cattle farmer in Far North Queensland, who also signed the letter, described farming as a gamble, having experienced her fair share of drought and floods.
“We take the good with the bad because mother nature is pretty fair … but to have fellow human beings being so cruel, that I have trouble with,” Ms Jonsson said, as she described why she had signed.
Ms Booth expressed confidence their support would help give credibility to activists and lobbyists fighting for Baha’i rights.
“When people are making decisions in Iran, they know that people are watching, people know what’s happening, and it’s not something that is hidden away in a cupboard,” she said.
“And I think that’s what’s been happening so far because no-one knows about it. They seem to think that they can get away with it all.”
In February, the Islamic Council of Victoria also released a statement calling on Iran to uphold the rights of all minorities, end 40 years of persecution of Baha’is and return the farmlands in Ivel.
“This is the practice and teachings of our beloved prophet Muhammad,” the statement said.
Australian Baha’i devastated by loss of family properties
Arsalan Sadeghi Iveli moved to Australia with his family in 2019.(Supplied: Arsalan Sadeghi Iveli)
Arsalan Sadeghi Iveli was one of three former Ivel residents who now lives in Australia who spoke to the ABC this week about the confiscation of their family properties.
He moved to Australia with his family in 2019.
His brother back in Iran is one of 27 appellants
fighting a court order to save the family farm the siblings share.
“It’s been traumatising because it is our ancestral land, worked by our great grandparents, our parents, and by us,” Mr Sadeghi Iveli told the ABC.
“We have a deep connection with it.”
He said the support from Australian farmers was “really heartwarming” as he thanked them for “being a voice for the farmers of Ivel”.
Mr Sadeghi Iveli spent his childhood working the land with his family to produce sunflowers, potatoes, rice and barley.
Back then, Baha’is accounted for about half of the population.
“It was hard but it was happy because we lived on the land and everyone in the village got along really well,” he said.
At harvest time, he said Baha’i and Muslim families would work the land together. But when he was 13, all that changed.
Mr Sadeghi Iveli said the neighbours he had considered friends turned on them along with a mob from outside of the village and locked him and around 130 men, women and children in a mosque for three days without food or water.
Mr Sadeghi Iveli, far left, spent his childhood working on the family farm in Ivel with his family.(Supplied: Arsalan Sadeghi Iveli)
Visibly distraught, Mr Sadeghi Iveli recalled how they were beaten, threatened and told to convert or be expelled from the village.
“We had a peaceful life together. And then for our neighbours to basically turn against us and to expel us from the village, it was devastating.”
What followed was described by the community as a decades long campaign to strip them of ownership of their properties, during which many of their homes were burned and their land bulldozed.
The recent court order also dismissed all prior claims from Baha’i families filed on the destruction of 50 houses and other property in Ivel.
Many lived a life of displacement. Mr Sadeghi Iveli and his four siblings worked odd jobs as children just to survive.
He described working hard all day only to be bullied, threatened and humiliated at the night school he attended.
Support from farmers gives ‘hope and happiness’
Baha’is are estimated to number six million worldwide, including 20,000 in Australia.(Supplied: Australian Baha’i community)
Although their homes were destroyed, the community continued to return to work the land amid harassment and violence.
Among them was another Australian resident who asked not to be named.
He arrived in Australia in 2017 and now works as a painter and decorator.
After their family home was demolished, he had continued to tend to his crops,
but increasing violence made that impossible in recent years.
He said the court decision was devastating but not surprising. He had been heavily involved in partitioning the court to reverse the order but said it was like facing “a brick wall”.
“I have many good memories from growing up in that beautiful setting. I can’t forget the beauty of Ivel where I spent my childhood,” he said.
“We lived there for four generations. You know, parents, grandparents, great grandparents, they all lived and worked on those lands and to be told that you are not entitled to it because of your religious beliefs, that was something that was really hurtful.”
But he said it makes him extremely happy to know that there are people supporting them.
“The fact that people defend the rights of other people from different parts of the world, not really knowing who they are or where they come from, it shows the connectedness between humanity and that gives me hope and happiness.”