By James Gilman for Mcgill
Since 1979 revolution, persecution of progressive faith has intensified
The Bahá’í Faith is a monotheistic religion founded in mid-nineteenth century Persia (present-day Iran) by Mirza Hoseyn Ali Nuri, also known as Bahá’u’alláh (Glory of God), and is one of the youngest independent religions in the world. The Bahá’í Faith grew out of the Babi movement, which split from Shia Islam earlier in the nineteenth century.
Bahá’u’alláh was believed to be a new messenger of God, following in a line of divine prophets that included Abraham, Jesus, and Muhammad. Bahá’u’alláh’s teachings stress the unity of religions and mankind, as well as a progressive vision of God. The Bahá’í Faith places emphasis on social equity, including the equality of genders. It has no clergy, and its administrative institutions are all democratically elected.
In 1852, Bahá’u’alláh was arrested by Iran’s ruling Qajar dynasty and imprisoned after a government crackdown on the Babi movement. While incarcerated in Tehran, Bahá’u’alláh first came to believe he was the next prophet. A year later he was exiled to Baghdad, where he spent the next decade, before being further exiled to Constantinople. He was later exiled for a final time by the Ottoman Empire to the penal colony of Acre, in the then-Ottoman province of Palestine, where he died in 1892. It was there, near modern-day Haifa, Israel, that the Bahá’í’s supreme governing institution, the Universal House of Justice, was established.
When the State of Israel was created in 1948, the government allowed the Bahá’í’s, the Universal House of Justice, and their spiritual centre, the Shrine of the Bab to remain, a fact that would be used as propaganda against Iranian Bahá’ís over 30 years later following the Iranian Revolution.
After 1979, when Iran was transformed into an Islamic theocracy under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Bahá’í minority in Iran became victims of increased persecution by the government, which promoted fears that they might be Israeli spies.
There are an estimated 300,000 Bahá’ís in Iran today, making them the largest religious minority in the country, except for Sunni Islam. Yet the Bahá’í Faith is not recognized by the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the country’s ruling mullahs consider the religion to be a heretical offshoot of Islam. Only Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism are constitutionally recognized as legitimate religions.
“During the 1980s dozens of [Bahá’í] leaders were executed . . . their properties were routinely confiscated, and they have very much been shut out of public life in Iran,” said Hadi Ghaemi, the coordinator of International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. “Their economic activities are very much monitored and limited. There are cases of their cemeteries being destroyed, and even individuals being targeted in communities and attacked.”
According to The Bahá’í Question: Cultural Cleansing in Iran, a Bahá’í International Community publication, Bahá’ís in Iran have faced intimidation, violence, and attempts to destroy their livelihoods and cultural heritage since 1979. They are routinely denounced as agents of foreign interests, and are often accused of spying for Israel, the “evidence” being the location of the religion’s spiritual and adminitrative headquarters in Israel.
The Bahá’í International Community cites a number of leaked documents in which government officials order the identification and monitoring of Bahá’ís in Iran as proof of a government controlled persecution of the group.
Bahá’ís in Iran are denied access to post-secondary education and, according to the Bahá’í International Community, Bahá’í children are often targeted for harassment in schools throughout Iran.
Bahá’ís are also routinely attacked in the pro-government media, including the Islamic Republic News Agency and newspapers like Kayhan.
“There has been a vilification campaign by the government and government controlled media,” said Bani Dugal, the principal representative of the Bahá’í International Community to the United Nations. “They have on a regular basis been publishing articles defaming the Bahá’ís and [making] really wild accusations against the Bahá’ís of Iran, against the Bahá’í state in general.”
According to a number of human rights activists, violence and government persecution of Bahá’ís has increased significantly in recent years, and there is a great deal of concern over the security of the Bahá’í minority.