By Chaim Lax
For the past month, there has been an uptick in news stories about members of the Baha’i faith in Iran being arrested on a number of trumped-up charges, including spying for Israel.
In early August, it was reported that a number of Baha’is, including three of its former leaders, had been arrested for spying on behalf of the Jewish state, as well as proselytizing to children and young adults.
Then, this past week, it was announced that up to 14 Baha’is (including 13 youths) had been arrested by the Islamic Republic for spying for Israel.
This rise in Iranian state repression of a religious minority is being given increased media attention. However, many consumers of the news have not been provided with the complete picture: What is the Baha’i faith? Why is it being persecuted by the Islamic Republic? Why are Baha’i adherents being accused of collaborating with the Jewish state?
In this piece, we will take a look at the history of the Baha’i faith and its central tenets, as well as analyze the reception that members of the faith have received in different parts of the Middle East.
With 5 to 8 million adherents worldwide, the Baha’i faith is one of the fastest-growing religions in the world. At less than 200 years old, it is also one of the youngest religions.
Baha’ism was formally established in 1863 by a Persian expatriate exiled to Baghdad known as Baha’u’llah (which means Glory of God).
At the time, Baha’u’llah had already been imprisoned in both Tehran and Baghdad for his religious beliefs and following of the Bab, a Persian spiritual leader who had earlier foretold the coming of a messenger of God who would usher in a new religious era.
In 1863, Baha’u’llah announced to the adherents of the Bab that he was the messenger of God that they were waiting for. The vast majority of the Bab’s followers accepted this claim, and thus the Baha’i faith was born.
Soon after, the Ottoman authorities deported Baha’u’llah and imprisoned him in Adrianople (modern Turkey) and then Akko (in modern Israel), where he passed away in 1892.
After the passing of Baha’u’llah, his son took over the leadership of the Baha’i community and oversaw the faith’s expansion into Europe, North America, and other continents.
In the 1960s, the Baha’i faith began to grow even more and by the early 20th century, it had adherents in 180 countries around the world.
A core tenet of the Baha’i faith is that all of the great world religions teach an identical truth and that all of the founders of these religions have been manifestations of God and part of a divine plan for the education of humanity. Baha’i believes that Baha’u’llah facilitated this aspiration by establishing a universal faith.
As one American Baha’i adherent succinctly phrased it in an interview for CBS: “We believe in this progressive revelation that the teachings of these great spiritual teachers, they all had their time and place. And so, we embrace the religions that came before.”
Due to their respect for the great religions that came before, members of the Baha’i faith study the texts of these religions alongside the texts of the Bab, Baha’u’llah, and other Baha’i leaders.
While there is no formal clergy in Baha’i, there are local spiritual centers that are administered by elected members who deal with the affairs of the local community.
These local spiritual centers, in turn, fall under the jurisdiction of national spiritual centers, which are also elected by Baha’i members of that country.
Every five years, delegates from these national spiritual centers get together and elect the Universal House of Justice, a supreme governing body that is based in Haifa, Israel, and legislates on religious matters according to the teachings of the Baha’i faith.
The recent arrests of members of the Baha’i community in Iran is but the latest example of a chronic state of persecution endured by the faithful at the hands of the Islamic Republic.
The main reason for this policy by the theocratic regime of the ayatollahs is that the Baha’i are considered apostates due to their rejection of the Muslim religious tenet that Mohammed was the last of the prophets sent by God.
Even though the Baha’i are the largest non-Muslim religious minority in Iran, they are not protected by Article 13 of the Islamic Republic’s constitution. The document recognizes Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism as religious minorities and theoretically at least allows the members of these faiths to practice their respective religions without governmental interference.
This lack of recognition as an official religion has allowed the Islamic Republic to persecute members of the Baha’i faith since the Republic’s founding in 1979.
As noted by members of the Baha’i community and international human rights organizations, state persecution of Iranian members of the faith includes arbitrary arrests and imprisonment, the closure of businesses, the barring from holding government jobs, a ban on youth from attending university, incitement against adherents in Iranian state media (which has led to violent attacks and vandalism), and the confiscation of both individual and communal assets.
As one observer noted, Iranian repression even goes beyond “cradle to grave persecution,” since Baha’i burials have been repeatedly disrupted, and Baha’i cemeteries have been routinely destroyed or vandalized.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is not the only Middle Eastern country where adherents of the Baha’i faith face persecution.
Under Iranian influence, Qatar has undertaken a system of repression that could see the nation’s entire Baha’i community erased within a few years.
In Qatar, the state repeatedly uses trumped-up charges to blacklist Baha’i members and then expel them from the country. Expelled Baha’i Qataris are never allowed to return, even for a visit. In addition, it is reported that Baha’i members who are not citizens of Qatar are being denied residency permits or are not having their residency permits renewed.
In nearby Yemen, members of the Baha’i faith also face repressive measures, particularly from the fundamentalist Houthi movement that currently controls the northern part of the country. Despite being only 1% of Yemen’s non-Muslim population, the Baha’i faith is the most persecuted religious minority in the country. This targeting of the Baha’i includes incitement (such as comparing the faith to satanism), arrests, and imprisonment without a fair trial. According to some experts, the Baha’i community of Yemen is under the threat of “annihilation” due to this ongoing persecution.
In stark contrast to the treatment of the Baha’i in these aforementioned states, one Middle Eastern country that is welcoming to members of the faith is Israel.
As mentioned earlier, the Israeli port city of Haifa is home to the supreme governing body of the Baha’i, the Universal House of Justice. This is because Haifa is home to the Shrine of the Bab, a mausoleum that houses the remains of the Bab, which were brought from Iran to Haifa in 1909. Further up the coast is the holiest site in the Baha’i faith, the resting place of the Baha’u’llah outside of the city of Akko.
However, while Israel is home to two of the holiest shrines in Baha’i, there is no official Baha’i community in the Jewish state. This is due to the mysterious request of the Baha’u’llah, that no Baha’i community be established in the Holy Land.
Nevertheless, there are approximately 750 Baha’i members from 70 countries who come to Israel in order to volunteer in either Haifa or Akko for limited amounts of time.
As one Baha’i volunteer stated in an interview with The Jerusalem Post about the reception of the Baha’i in the Jewish state: “We are treated well. There is no interference by the authorities at all. There is a very cordial relationship of respect and obedience to whatever the government might say.”
Due to the location of the Baha’i faith’s world headquarters in Israel, this gives the Islamic Republic a convenient excuse for persecuting the Baha’i minority in Iran: claiming that they are spies trained by Jerusalem.
As Iranian state persecution of the Baha’i minority continues, it is imperative to ensure that Iranian state propaganda does not seep unimpeded into the mainstream media.