No Rest for the Dead: Iran’s Campaign Against Baha’i Cemeteries

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Friday 15 January 2016

Roland Elliott Brown

The Semnan Baha'i cemetery after it was vandalized in February 2009. Approximately 50 gravestones were destroyed and the mortuary building was set on fire.

In Iran, deceased members of the Baha’i faith cannot rest in peace, nor can a Baha’i’s relatives count on being allowed to grieve in peace.

According to Baha’i researchers who provided case studies to IranWire, Iranian security forces, or officials working on their behalf, have welded shut the gates of Baha’i cemeteries, destroyed gravestones, trees, morgues and mortuaries, intimidated cemetery workers, blocked access roads, ordered cemeteries to be closed or relocated, and even exhumed bodies and prevented burials. Their actions appear to result from Iran’s selective recognition of religious minorities, as enshrined in the constitution of the Islamic Republic, which dates back to the revolution of 1979.

In most countries, cemetery vandalism occurs as petty property crime, usually carried out by small-time hooligans and thrill seekers. In the United kingdom, the past year has brought local news reports of tombstones knocked over in Fife, gravesspray-painted with obscene slogans in Derby, and Australian war graves defaced in London. Angry local people used words like “evil” and “despicable” to describe the crimes. Reports abound, too, of acts of desecration motivated by religious prejudice. Anti-Semitic vandals frequently target Jewish cemeteries in France and Eastern Europe, and in the US. Vandalism of Muslim cemeteries has also been reported in Denmark, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.

Graves in the Semnan Baha'i cemetery after it was vandalized in February 2009. Approximately 50 gravestones were destroyed and the mortuary building was set on fire.

Politically and ideologically motivated cemetery vandalism occurs around the world. In 2012, for example, vandals in the Falkland Islands damaged Argentinian war graves dating back to the 1982 war between Britain and Argentina. The same year, a Libyan Islamist militia smashed up a British Second World War cemetery in Benghazi, and videotaped themselves expressing hatred for the Christians and Jews buried there. The Libyan government called the vandalism “irresponsible and criminal,” and promised to punish those responsible.

By comparison with Libya, Iran is most unlikely to experience sectarian attacks on Christian and Jewish graves. Apart from being a more stable country, Iran affords three long-established minorities — Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians — a limited degree of official recognition. Last year Iran even erected a memorial, inscribed in Hebrew and Persian, to Iranian Jewish soldiers killed in the Iran-Iraq War. But whereas three minorities enjoy recognition, a fourth, the Baha’is, experiences official discrimination. “One of the main issues is the constitution,” says Diane Alai, representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations in Geneva. “From this stems all the problems.”

Following the Iranian Revolution of 1979, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini founded an Islamic Republic, Khomeini and his followers reserved special ire for the relatively young Baha’i faith, which was established in the mid 19th century. Khomeini regarded Baha’i principles, such as the equality of men and women and the lack of need for a clergy, as a hostile political project. During the early days of the revolution, arrests and executions of Baha’is were commonplace. Khomeini denounced the Baha’is agents of foreign powers, and excoriated their sympathizers abroad. ”How come,” he demanded of US President Ronald Reagan in 1983, ”you support a bunch of people who do not even belong to any religion and are only here at the order of their masters?”

A mortuary building used to prepare bodies at the Semnan Baha'i cemetery was fire-bombed in February 2009. The graffiti painted on the wall, when translated into English , reads: 'Death to Israel.'

The idea that Baha’is are really the agents of foreign powers appears to have persisted among Iran’s security services. “We see that very often the persecution against the Baha’is, on all levels, comes from the Ministry of Intelligence,” Alai says. ‘They are the ones who are really spearheading the persecution.” According to case studies received by IranWire, in 2008, Ministry of Intelligence officials in Najafabad threatened and briefly imprisoned members of the Baha’i community for “illegal” use of their cemetery. Following an episode of cemetery vandalism in Sanandaj in 2013, in the course of which a morgue, prayer room and walls were damaged, a case study noted, “Ministry of Intelligence appears to be in charge.”

Alai says she cannot understand the motivations of Iran’s security forces. “Basically the Baha’is in Iran want to peacefully live with other Iranians of all backgrounds, whether religious or ethnic, and they want to be able to serve their country and try to promote the advancement of their country,” she says. “Very often the accusation leveled against the Baha’is is acting against the security of the state. I don’t know which comes first — if it’s because it’s the Ministry of Intelligence that arrests the Baha’is that these accusations are leveled against them, or if it’s the presumption that just being a Baha’i is something that is dangerous for the government.”

In principle, Alai says, members of the Baha’i faith obey the government of the country in which they live. But In Iran, Baha’is face persecution because of theological objections to their beliefs, and the actions of their faith’s founder, the 19th century figure Baha’u’llah, who proclaimed himself a prophet of God — a statement Muslims consider blasphemous. “The clerics are very much part of the ruling force in Iran, and most Iranian clerics have difficulty accepting the claim that Baha’u’llah would be a manifestation of God that would come after Prophet Muhammad. We don’t want them to accept that, a lot of people don’t accept that, but at least they can accept that some people are allowed to believe in that.”

There are few analogies, historical or contemporary, to be found for state-backed attacks on cemeteries. One example that stands out — the case of Nazi Germany’s destruction of Jewish cemeteries — should be handled with caution since it is such an extreme case. But there are similarities. “Starting in the 1930s,” says Edna Friedberg of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., “Jewish cemeteries across Germany were treated as fair game for looting and destruction. Iron gates and fences were torn down and melted for other uses.  There were many instances of Hitler Youth and other Nazi-affiliated groups vandalizing Jewish cemeteries, including smashing tombstones, cutting down trees, and defacing or damaging buildings.”

Instances of state-backed vandals cutting down trees and defacing tombstones appear throughout the case studies IranWire received. Accounts of valuable properties, such as the old Baha’i cemetery in central Yazd, being seized and repurposed by the state also come up. According to one report, in 2011 Revolutionary Guards in Shiraz put up a sign to say that the site of a cemetery would be turned into a sports center.  There, too, analogies to German anti-Jewish persecution present themselves. “In a number of towns,” Friedman says, “Jewish cemeteries were leveled and then further dishonored through use as junkyards, for grazing animals, or even as ski slopes.”

But whereas Jews in Germany were the target of what Friedman terms “coordinated mass violence” — as in the case ofKristallnacht in November 1938, when dozens of Jewish cemeteries and mortuaries were set ablaze or blown up — attacks on Baha’i cemeteries are not backed by widespread hate campaigns. Iranian Baha’is have often received sympathetic treatment from ordinary Iranians, and even from some Iranian officials. “There has been a lot of sympathy in many instances,” Alai says. “We know that in the case of a lady who had passed away in Sanandaj, people made a point of going and visiting the family while they were grieving to show their support.” Case studies reveal that local courts and officials often issue judgments in favor of Baha’is where burial rights are concerned, even if more senior bodies overrule them.

Baha’i communities in Iran, though not the object of widespread hate movements, or even universal official prejudice, still need the support of Iranian society. The establishment and maintenance of secure Baha’i cemeteries, immune from vandalism official or otherwise, will prove a measure of this. As Alai puts it, “Whenever such incidents take place, this is a sign of the lack of understanding of what freedom of religion and belief is. Fundamentally, whenever there is this backward behavior, you also see attacks on religions.”


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