Translation by Iran Press Watch
[Originally published by BBC Persian on Tuesday, 8 April 2014 at 16:59 GMT]
One day in the middle of class, our religion teacher asked, “Children, have you ever heard anything about the Baha’is? If you have a Baha’i friend, you shouldn’t communicate with them or even drink from the same glass of water. These people are unclean.”
Mahtab says, “I first heard the word “Baha’i” in the third grade during religion class. The family who lived next door to us had a Baha’i daughter, and we were close friends. One day when we were playing together, I told her what the religion teacher had said, and she started to sob. She said, “Well, I am a Baha’i.” I was just a kid at the time, so I couldn’t find any way to comfort her. When I came back home from school the following day, the family had left.”
Following the Islamic Revolution, the Iranian government has not officially recognized the Baha’i religion. According to the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the only recognized religions apart from Islam are Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity.
When the Islamic Republic came to power, confrontations with Baha’is entered a new level of intensity. Throughout the 1980s, many Baha’is were arrested and imprisoned, their property was confiscated, and a number of them were executed.
Soraya is a member of the Iranian Baha’i community who came to Great Britain 20 years ago. Regarding her experiences as a Baha’i in Iran, she told BBC Persian: “Prior to the revolution, my family and I never faced any serious obstacles. The biggest problems began after the revolution. My father, a retired army officer, was cut off from his pension. My brothers and sisters were fired from their jobs. I was a student in secondary school at the time. When I had two years of schooling left, our school hired a new principal, who always used to say, ‘I have set aside the files belonging to you Baha’is from those of the other students, since you are like parasites, and I will see to it that you are expelled as soon as possible.’ From that time on, I would wait to be expelled every day I went to school.”
Soraya added, “After the Cultural Revolution, a section was added to the college entrance exam form where students had to indicate their religious affiliation. They had four religions to choose from: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Zoroastrianism. Under these choices, I would write ‘Baha’i.’ Year after year I filled out these forms, but I was never allowed to take the entrance exam. Even when I was able to take correspondence courses with universities outside of the country through the Baha’i community, the envelopes containing our homework would be intercepted and destroyed. This interference made sending our homework to those universities extremely difficult for us.”
Soraya also noted that two of her brothers were arrested and initially sentenced to death in the 1980s, and that through the efforts and campaigns of human rights activists, the death sentences given to a number of Baha’is—including her two brothers—were overturned.
Shahab, another Baha’i citizen who never had the opportunity to get a university education because he is a Baha’i, said, “We Baha’is are second-class citizens. We are not allowed to be employed in the public sector or to get an education, and we must always be careful to avoid giving others an excuse to harass us. My only wish was to obtain a university education, but I was deprived of that opportunity. I wanted to study Persian and to become successful in my country, but I was forced to leave it.”
Recently, Mohammad Javad Larijani—the head of the human rights council in the Iranian judiciary—denied the idea that Baha’is in Iran “face any kind of discrimination or human rights violations simply for being Baha’is”, and declared that no one is tried before a judge or barred from higher education just for being Baha’i.
Addressing reports of the violation of Iranian religious minorities’ human rights, Mr. Larijani said, “Those human rights reports which claim that the rights of Iranian minorities are not protected are blatant lies. Such statements are racist, sectarian, and contrary to the standards of human rights.”
Emphasizing that the Baha’i faith is not an “officially recognized religion,” Mr. Larijani added, “The followers of this faith have never been harassed by officials solely because they are Baha’is, since these officials believe that every Iranian citizen has been accorded rights that are stipulated in our constitution, and that these citizens cannot therefore be deprived of those rights.”
These remarks come at a time when the worldwide Baha’i community and activists for the rights of religious minorities in Iran note that after the revolution, Baha’is were fired from their occupations in the public sector and were deprived of a university education.
Despite the fact that Iranian officials have repeatedly denied the existence of any human rights violations against Baha’is, when conservative religious jurists have been asked about Baha’is, they have not acknowledged any rights for them.
In the fatwa written by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, it is said: “All of the followers of the misguided Baha’i sect are considered najis [ritually impure] and in the event that they should come into contact with something, it is mandatory to observe the guidelines regarding ablutions—that is, if you come into physical contact with an impure object [which includes Baha’is], you must repeat the ablutions. However, principals and teachers should conduct themselves according to Islamic law and teachings in dealing with Baha’i students.”
In the same vein, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Noori Hamadani stated the following in a fatwa: “The members of this misguided sect are not considered Muslims; any sort of relationship with them is forbidden, except in the cases where there is hope that they may be rightly guided.”
In regards to the Baha’i religion and the reasons devout Muslims oppose it, Hasan Fereshtian—a scholar of religions—told BBC Persian, “The Baha’i faith is a religion that was created after Islam, so naturally Muslims have not formally recognized this religion. Thus, there has been friction and contention between Baha’is and Muslims from the beginning. This contention existed both prior to and following the revolution. However, what changed after the revolution was that conservative Muslims came to power. This conservative community did not have power before the revolution and they were not included in the government—they were an independent bunch. After the revolution, though, that same community of conservative Muslims came to power through their involvement in the events that preceded the revolution.”
This religious scholar, who considers the question of “an Islamic community” completely separate from the issue of “citizens’ rights,” said: “Within an Islamic community, groups of like-minded people may enter into agreements with one another but not necessarily recognize each other as equals. This could happen; Muslims could have the right to do that in a Muslim society. This could be an internal agreement between a Muslim and a non-Muslim citizen of an Islamic society. However, when we discuss the rights of the citizens of a country, we can no longer allow distinctions to be made and discrimination to take place.”
Mr. Fereshtian added: “The citizens of a country should not be given any preferential treatment as long as they pay taxes. They should have a share in its natural resources and general prosperity—there is no difference among them. A Muslim and a non-Muslim, or a pious and impious person, are all equal citizens. We do not have first-class and second-class citizens. After the revolution, however, the mindset that was meant to be reserved for the Muslim community was applied to the entire nation, and the prejudices and privations which undeniably exist and have so regrettably beset the Baha’is are indicative of the now-prevailing conservative mindset, which was only intended to apply to agreements between Muslims and non-Muslims in an Islamic society.
Mr. Fereshtian further notes that many fatwas have become more moderate over time. In regards to the fatwas against the Baha’is, he says, “Many such fatwas are moving towards acknowledging the purity of non-Muslims. Some fatwas limit this purity to ‘people of the book’ 1 while others extend this purity to the entire human race, irrespective of their beliefs.”
According to Mr. Fereshtian, the issue of a country’s citizens is just as Ayatollah Montazeri 2 described, “Whether they are Baha’i, Muslim, another religion or no religion at all, they are all considered the same citizens of one country.”
In the United Nations Human Rights Council’s annual special report on the situation of human rights in Iran, Ban Ki-moon—the Secretary-General of the United Nations—announced that “There has been no improvement in the situation of religious and ethnic minorities in Iran. The extent to which these minorities can enjoy their civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights is severely limited. The human rights violations which have taken place against religious minorities, like Baha’is and Christians, are rooted in law and tradition.”
1. An Islamic concept; see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/People_of_the_Book
2. Hussein-Ali Montazeri, who was at one time the designated successor to Ayatollah Khomeini; see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hussein-Ali_Montazeri