A political storm has erupted in Iran after the daughter of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani visited a leader of the persecuted Bahai religious minority while she was on leave from prison.
Senior conservative clerics denounced Faezeh Hashemi following her meeting with Fariba Kamalabadi, a mother-of-three who was temporarily released and allowed home to see her newborn grandchild.
Iran’s religious establishment regards the Bahai faith, which emerged in Iran in the 19th Century, as a heretical sect.
Bahais, who number approximately 300,000, are often denounced as unclean and accused of being agents of the US and Israel.
In response to the criticism of Ms Hashemi’s visit and calls for her to be prosecuted, her father issued a terse public reprimand saying she had made a big mistake that had to be rectified.
He described the Bahai faith as “a deviant sect”, which “we disavow and have always done”.
Observers say Mr Rafsanjani might have come under pressure to act.
While the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has not commented publicly on the issue, his website this week reposted a fatwa, or legal ruling, denouncing Bahais as unclean.
It is not the first time Faezeh Hashemi has been at the centre of controversy.
Faezeh Hashemi spent six months in prison with Fariba Kamalabadi in 2012
The former MP and women’s magazine editor spent six months in prison in 2012 after being found guilty of making “propaganda against the system” for her role in the mass protests that followed the disputed presidential election of 2009.
Hardliners have long used Ms Hashemi’s alleged misdeeds to undermine her father, who is a leading moderate voice in Iran.
It was during her time in jail that Ms Hashemi met Ms Kamalabadi, one of seven Bahai community leaders arrested in 2008 and handed 20-year sentences in 2010 after being convicted on charges including “espionage for Israel”, “insulting religious sanctities” and “propaganda against the system.”
Human rights activists said the charges against the seven – who had formed an ad hoc national administrative group for Bahais called the Yaran – were baseless.
Other former cellmates of Ms Kamalabadi also took the opportunity to visit her during her brief time back home this week, including the noted human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh.
But it was only when pictures emerged on social media of Ms Hashemi, a woman from a family at the heart of the ruling establishment, sitting at home with Ms Kamalabadi and other Bahais, that the controversy erupted.
Ms Hashemi herself has been unrepentant. She said her time in prison with Ms Kamalabadi had opened her eyes to the Bahais, who she believed should be accorded full civil and human rights.
“Of course, we form bonds with fellow human beings during the course of our lives, even if they do not belong to our religion,” she said, arguing the clerics’ treatment of Bahais was contrary to the teachings of Islam.
“If they [conservatives] were concerned with religion, they wouldn’t commit so much injustice in [the] name of religion.”
Social media praise
The Iranian authorities deny that the country’s Bahais, whose faith is not recognised by the constitution, suffer discrimination.
However, Bahai children are denied entry to universities, and Bahai business owners complain of regular harassment by the authorities.
There have been many attacks on Bahai cemeteries across the country.
One cleric even went on state television recently to say Bahais who died should be collected and disposed of by the municipal authorities.
Ms Kamalabadi has now returned to jail, but there are signs that attitudes among many Iranians who previously had ignored the treatment of Bahais in their midst may be changing.
While hardline newspapers and websites castigated Ms Hashemi for her meeting, many Iranians took to social media this week to praise her for highlighting the plight of the Bahais.
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