The authorities in Iran have launched a month-long crackdown on members of the Bahai faith, the country’s biggest minority religion, accusing believers of being spies for Israel.
Despite a media blackout, pictures have been released by Bahai activists of houses being demolished in the village of Roushankouh, a centre of the faith in the north of the country. There have been more than 50 raids on homes and businesses across Iran, according to Bahai representative groups.
Among the scores arrested in recent weeks have been some of the main leaders of the community, including Fariba Kamalabadi, Afif Naemi and Mahvash Sabet, a winner of the Pinter prize for writers of courage issued by PEN, the literary freedom of expression group.
The three were among the seven-strong leadership of the faith in Iran who were all arrested between 2007 and 2008 and served ten years in prison.
The whereabouts of several of those detained is unknown, and others have already been sentenced to long jail terms. At least one leader is believed to be in solitary confinement.
Padideh Sabeti, a spokeswoman for the Bahai in the UK, said it was hard to find out what had happened to all those arrested. “It’s very difficult for them to contact us,” she said. “The Iranian government sees providing information about human rights as spying.”
Bahais recognise a 19th-century Iranian, Baha’ullah, as a prophet who believed in the unity of all faiths. The religion has an estimated five to seven million followers, many of them in India and Iran.
However, the faith is condemned and banned in Iran. Islam considers Muhammad the “last prophet”, so the Bahai faith is seen as automatically heretical, whereas Christianity and Judaism are allowed as “faiths of the book”.
The Bahai have also been victims of a historical quirk. Baha’ullah was exiled by the Shah of Iran, lived for a while in Istanbul and was then arrested by the Ottoman authorities and sent to live in the Mediterranean city of Acre, where he died in 1892. His shrine, the holiest place in the faith, is there.
Acre is now in Israel and the faith’s headquarters is in nearby Haifa, making its followers immediately suspect to Iran’s Islamic Republic, which regards the destruction of Israel as a primary ideological goal.
The Iranian ministry of intelligence said that those arrested had liaised with the “Zionist” headquarters of the Bahai “espionage party”, which planned to expand its operations in Iran, “especially in kindergartens”.
The arrested core members had provided information to the headquarters and were intent on “propagating the teachings of the fabricated Bahai colonialism”, the ministry said.
Diane Alai, the Bahai representative to the United Nations, called the authorities’ statement “incoherent and self-contradictory”.
“The allegations are clearly absurd and baseless,” she said. “Iran’s authorities, rather than dealing with the challenges of their country, instead direct their attacks on innocents and try to stoke religious hatred.
“Iran’s government has for more than 40 years alleged that Bahais are spies for foreign countries but, in all that time, has failed to produce a shred of credible evidence. Now they are reduced to attacking kindergarten and day-care teachers as a threat to national security.”
Sabeti said that the Islamic Republic had a long-term goal of eradicating the Bahais but that it was not clear why a crackdown had been ordered now. “For years the Bahais have been used as scapegoats to deflect attention from conditions inside Iran,” she said. “They do this when they feel they are vulnerable.”