Without mincing words, the story of Semnan is a chilling tale of organized, religiously motivated action against Baha’is. There is a subset of the population which is different only in belief; well-wishers of the nation, productive members of society. Actions against them in the past two years have become more ominous, with spontaneous acts of the ignorant replaced and bolstered by an actively organized campaign designed to whip the populace into a frenzy: both to perpetrate crimes against and to applaud injustice towards the hapless, harmless Baha’is.
Iran is a vast country, and the long story of the persecution of the Baha’is spans its breadth for over 150 years; it is difficult to grasp so much history in its totality, so I won’t presume to deal with it. However, the past few years have witnessed a surge in coordinated attacks on Baha’is throughout Iran. So let me present that story in a manageable format – call this the Cliff-notes. Semnan is a model of this intensification – the outrages in this city of 120,000 are generalizable to the nation as a whole. I wish I were making this up, or being dramatic.
The story travels down three main veins: organized seminars vilifying the Baha’is, resulting in assaults perpetrated against person and property – both by organs of the state and by the laity – culminating in summary arrest and incarceration on charges which are obviously false, though sadly they are enforced. Semnan’s size allows us to follow individual families, to see what it is to be a Baha’i in such troubled times.
During December 2008, in the early hours of the morning, the houses of twenty Baha’is are descended upon by officers of the Ministry of Intelligence. Unmarked cars disgorge up to twelve officers, who first seize mobile phones, cut landlines, stop children from attending school – sometimes refusing to show any official documents. The houses are then upturned; paperwork, documents, personal belongings, laptops, computers, peripherals, satellite dishes, Baha’i Holy texts and all are confiscated. Especially unfortunate was Mr. Behrooz Khanjani, who had a quantity of cash, deeds to properties, licenses for conducting a business and work permits stolen from his safe-box, an insult which was followed in March 2009 by the forced shuttering of his store, without any charge – sadly this was just the beginning for Mr. Khanjani’s family.
These raids were centrally organized, as indicated by the status of the offices and the provenance of their vehicles (Tehran, which is ~220km distant), and had not the least bit to do with intelligence gathering – they stole valuables, not “evidence”; some officers hadn’t any idea what they were looking for; they were more looting than spooking. Some were even ashamed of their acts: “I have been ordered to do so. Please believe me.” Or “Please pardon what I’m doing.” And most saying “For God’s sake, do not suppose that Islam is perpetrating these acts!” Why send in the troops if they don’t know what to do? To terrify and demoralize, and to further impoverish a community that has been economically strangled (http://www.iranpresswatch.org/2009/03/economic-strangulation/ ).
April 2009: The cars of two Baha’is were vandalized, including the Fanaian family car. Rocks broke their windows, and a chemical agent was applied that damaged the exterior of the automobiles, coupled with a pleasant note “This is how the Baha’is will end up.”
February 2009: Home-made incendiary devices (Molotov cocktails) were thrown at the windows of three Baha’i residences, including the Khanjani household – all three had been victims of the December raids. They thankfully failed to break the windows or cause any injury. These occurred less than a week after a seminar held by the chief cleric of the city (Imam Jum’ih), who expressed a desire to “rid this nation of the Baha’is”.
February 2009, Semnan Baha’i cemetery. Even the deceased don’t escape, as fifty headstones and trees grown in honor of the dead were irreparably damaged, and the room used for funerals was trashed and torched. Graffiti both inaccurate and misspelled (implicating youth or laypersons as suspects) besmirch the gas and water tanks:
- The cemetery of the infidels living in Semnan.
- [We] spit on the souls of Baha’is and on their dead.
- We will kill each and every one of you. Baha’is are big fools!
- Baha, Bab, the Ruhi program (the Faith’s twin Founders, and a deepening program based on the Baha’i texts respectively); All of you [Baha’is] are impure. Get the hell of out here!
- Bastard Baha’i!
- Get the hell out of Iran! Death to Israel and England!
- Death to the infidel Baha’is!
- Filthy, infidel Baha’i!
- Death to Israel!
Why are they afraid of the dead? (http://www.iranpresswatch.org/2009/01/why-are-they-afraid-of-the-dead/ )
March 2009, A family who were raided in December were further insulted: their store was attacked and half of the merchandise that provided their livelihood was stolen.
April 2009, A victim of the car vandalization discovered the threats were not empty – he had the windows of his house broken on three separate occasions within the month. The assailants were on motorbikes; to date the authorities have not taken any action.
December 2008: Mrs. Fanaian, at the time a member of the local Baha’i administration, was arrested and held without charge, after having her home invaded and her car vandalized in the previous months. Finally she was sentenced to 3years and 8 months imprisonment, and transferred to the infamous Evin prison in Tehran. Her sentence has more recently been reduced by 8 months, for which she is grateful.
January 2009: Three former members of the local Baha’i administration were summarily arrested after security agents descended on their homes. These same three had been jailed unjustly three years ago, and released on a suspended sentence, a precedent that was cited in their current conviction, which carried a six month sentence. To date the judiciary has not stated the reasons for the arrests or the charges upheld against the three.
March 2009: A twenty-four-year-old male was arrested at his workplace by the Ministry of Intelligence. He is guilty of being a Baha’i (though not in the – now disbanded – administration [http://www.iranpresswatch.org/2009/03/in-memory/ ] ). He was sentenced to two and a half years of incarceration for “propaganda against the regime”, “activities against national security” and “teaching the Baha’i religion”.
April 2009: A twenty-nine-year-old, a victim of earlier raids, was summoned to the office of the Ministry of Intelligence purportedly to answer some questions. After being interrogated, a bail of 40,000,000 Tuman (approx. $41,000; for reference, yearly GDP per capita in Iran is $12,800) was demanded, but as it was the end of the day the bail was not processed. The next day his family took the amount in full to the court, but were refused without explanation. More heart-rending is that he has a wife and two children (aged five and seven years), and that on the same day his medical and dental supply store was broken into by the authorities without a warrant, and everything – including the office furniture – was transferred to the Bureau of Intelligence. Stripped of husband, father and livelihood in a single day!
His crimes? Verbally communicated, they were: propaganda against the regime, and – stunningly – lack of labels on store items – honest!
April 2009: Two Baha’i business partners, both victims of the raids, were arrested at their store. One – a relative of the twenty-four-year-old – has intermittently been allowed to have her eighteen month old daughter to stay with her in prison. She also has a seven-year-old son who was denied his wish to accompany his mother into prison. No other details are available about these imprisoned Baha’is or the charges against them.
These public gatherings are characterized by three things: slander against the Baha’is, exhortations for the common people to rise up against them, and the fact that they are shortly followed by attacks on the local Baha’is.
November 2008, Halal Ahmar lecture room. Muhammad Anjavinejad gives a seminar on the “Sinister Shadow” regarding the relationship of the wayward sect (the Baha’i Faith) and Zionism. (a baseless claim, explained here: http://www.iranpresswatch.org/post/1983 ). The audience targeted for this exposition of the false were teachers, religious instructors and youth.
February 2009, Friday sermon: Ayatollah Siyyid Muhammad Shah-Cheraqi the Imam Jum’ih of Semnan (the supreme religious authority) referred to the letter of the Attorney General to the Minister of Intelligence (http://www.iranpresswatch.org/2009/03/najafabadi-moi/ ) which appealed for severe and final confrontation with the Baha’is through legal channels (curiously this document admits that Bahai’s undertake socio-economic, humanitarian and educational development programs, but are still, somehow, inveterate enemies of Iran) and elaborated that “In the same way that the people were able to throw the Shah out of Iran, they can rid this nation of the Baha’is.” As if a veiled reference to purging or mass exile of some 300,000 innocents was not enough, he salted the wound: business with or marriage to a Baha’i is condemned.
March 2009, ‘Abedinih Mosque: Nasiri-Fard gave a public seminar titled “Ways to Combat the Wayward Sects of Baha’ism and Wahhabism.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wahhabi ) Large advertisements were posted across the city inviting the populace to this public seminar.
Some may call me disingenuous, because I, a Baha’i, am campaigning to have the stories of Baha’is heard. Some may argue that the world is lousy with suffering, why should anyone be concerned about a handful of people in a relative backwater? Yes, I am a Baha’i! and because I know that a Baha’i is a well wisher of the world, how could I not give voice to my heartbreak, that they’re suffering by the hand of the country that they succor, that they love! And lousy indeed would be a world that ignores suffering because there was too much of it, in which we wring our hands but keep on, as if doing something to aid the helpless is somehow beneath our station as human beings. The world is full of grey areas – this is not one of them! There is systematic, orchestrated injustice and attempts to agitate the fervor of the populace, all for the persecution of a minority that is the stark opposite to their official vile depiction. Historically, similar situations have resulted in world-horrifying outcomes: I pray that it doesn’t happen here.