Members of the Baha’i community in Australia say they fear for their relatives’ safety as persecution of the religious minority “intensifies” in Iran.
- Members of the Baha’i community in Australia say the religious minority is facing ‘new and harsh methods’ of persecution in Iran.
- Mona Fahandezh Saadi has had only minor contact from her sister, Yekta, since she was arrested on 18 December.
- A Baha’i community spokesperson calls on the Australian government to ‘hold Iran to account’ over human rights agreements.
On 18 December 2023, while many Australians were preparing for the festive holidays, Mona Fahandezh Saadi received news that made her “heart ache”: Yekta, her sister, had been arrested in Iran.
“Some government agents ran into her in the streets and arrested her. Then six agents took Yekta to her place and took some stuff, like books, including religious ones,” Mona told SBS Persian.
Yekta is a follower of the Baha’i faith, the largest non-Muslim religious minority in Iran. The community is estimated to be 300,000 people.
According to Mona, her sister has been accused of “establishing and creating groups to disrupt the country’s security”.
But Mona strongly refutes these charges.
“Baha’i people are not allowed to carry out any political activities in Iran, and Yekta has not done anything. It is purely because she’s Baha’i and is trying to serve her community and help it grow,” she said.
This is the fifth time Yekta has been arrested since 2012. Each time she was sentenced to between two and 11 years, and each time, according to her sister, “the sentence was annulled by the Supreme Court.”
Mona said her family only heard from Yekta 35 days after she was imprisoned, when they had a brief phone call.
‘An innocent grandma looking forward to seeing her only grandchild’
Mahvash Sabet, a Baha’i poet in Iran, had already spent 10 years of her life in jail when she was arrested on 31 July, 2022.
Negar Sabet, her daughter, lives in Australia.
“She was arrested just because of her Baha’i faith,” Negar said.
In March 2008, Mahvash was detained and charged with spying for Israel, propaganda against the Islamic Republic, insulting sacred sites, and establishment of an illegal administration. She was released in September 2017.
The same year, the poet was named PEN International Writer Of Courage, a prize awarded annually to a writer who has been persecuted for speaking out about their beliefs.
“There’s a sense of déjà vu. I never expected that she would have to relive the horrible nightmare all over again,” Negar said.
Negar is concerned about her 71-year-old mother’s health.
“My mum is not really in a good condition, and she is just an innocent grandma who was looking forward to getting the chance to come over here and see her only grandchild.”
After Mahvash was released from Jail in 2017, she applied for a tourism visa to come to Australia. Her application was rejected, even though she had come to Australia as a tourist before.
Calls for continued pressure on the Iranian government
According to the 2021 Census, there are close to 15,000 Bahai’s living in Australia and they comprise about 10 percent of the Iranian-Australian population.
Following the 1979 revolution in Iran, Australia established a humanitarian program focused on Baha’i Iranians fleeing persecution.
Awa Momtazian, a spokesperson for the Australian Baha’i community, said they have a “relationship with the government and civil society” about the human rights situation of Baha’is in Iran.
“We ask that the Australian government continue to keep a spotlight on the human rights violations of the Baha’is in Iran. And also hold Iran to account for the promises they have made about the human rights agreements that concern all its citizens regardless of their religion, ethnicity or cultural background,” she said.
A Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson told SBS Persian, “The government is gravely concerned about the human rights situation in Iran, including the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities.”
“We regularly raise our concerns about Iran’s oppression of members of the Baha’i faith directly with Iranian officials in Tehran and Canberra and through advocacy in multilateral forums, including on 24 October 2023 when we delivered a statement on Iran’s discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities, including members of the Baha’i faith, at the UN General Assembly,” the spokesperson said.
‘A range of new and harsh methods’
Awa said many in the Australian Baha’i community have expressed fears for their relatives, as persecution “intensifies”.
In October 2023, the Baha’i International Community (BIC) reported that 26 Baha’i citizens – including 16 women – had been sentenced to a combined 126 years in prison.
There is a range of new and harsh methods that the authorities have started to use that we haven’t seen for a while, like violent home raids.
Awa Momtazian, spokesperson for the Australian Baha’i community
In a statement released in December, the organisation said, “The past few months have witnessed several increasingly disturbing trends in the incidents of persecution of the Baha’is in Iran. A systematic program of home invasions and arrests has been unfolding in cities across the country.”
In November, the BIC submitted an urgent appeal to the UN Special Rapporteur on Iran reporting that “more than 80 individuals are detained, with 1,200 facing ongoing legal proceedings”.
In late 2023, it reported new methods of persecution against the community included “prevention of burying the loved ones” and banning Bahai’s from “registering their marriage online”.
In early January, it claimed that farmlands belonging to Baha’i families in the north of Iran “were forcibly seized”.
Awa stressed that repression of the Baha’is is not a new development.
“It’s well documented that Baha’is have been persecuted and have experienced varying levels of persecution since the inception of the Bahá’í faith in the 19th century. And since the early 1980s, the persecution has become state-sponsored and systematic and multi-dimensional.”
On several occasions, Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has called the Baha’i faith a cult.
In a 2019 report, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman, wrote of a secret official document approved by the supreme leader which “was prepared with a view to the gradual elimination of the Baha’is as a recognisable entity in Iran.”
“The constant threat of raids, arrests and detention or imprisonment, however, remain the main features of the country’s persecution of Baha’is,” the report said.
Dreams come true in Australia, but hearts remain in Iran
Mona said she experienced persecution when she was 18 and sat the Iranian university entrance exam.
“In the exam sheet, they asked us about our religion. Obviously, I didn’t deny that I’m Baha’i. Thus, the result never came through. I couldn’t attend university solely because I wrote I’m a Baha’i,” she said.
“I always dreamt of being a teacher, but this was impossible for me in Iran.”
Similarly, Negar said she lost her job in a pharmaceutical company in Iran as soon as her employers discovered her religious beliefs.
“Having that position was like a miracle for me; I loved my job, and it suited my talents and knowledge. When I lost it, my mum was in jail, and I thought it was the end for me,” she said.
Today, living in Australia, both women say their lives have changed for the better.
Mona studied at the University of Newcastle and is now a primary school teacher.
“I cried when I graduated. Being a teacher was my childhood dream. Australia helped me to reach my dream, but when I think about my sister and other Baha’is, I feel my heart is still there.”
Negar is experiencing similar torn feelings.
“For everyone else, it may seem like I have a normal life, but to me, this is a miracle. On the other hand, my heart is with my parents back home. Always a moment after I smile, laugh or enjoy the sunshine, I think about how my mum is suffering in jail.”
This article has been updated with a correction – in October 2023, the Baha’i International Community reported that 26 Baha’i citizens in Iran had been sentenced to prison time, not 36.