Persecution of the Baha'is in Iran

Statement by Dr. Firuz Kazemzadeh before the Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights of the House International Relations Committee

June 16, 1998


Good morning. I am Firuz Kazemzadeh, professor emeritus of history at Yale University and Secretary for External Affairs of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United States, the national governing body of the 130,000-member American Bahá'í community.

It gives me great pleasure to convey to the subcommittee the gratitude of the American Bahá'í community for the unfailing leadership of the US Congress in championing the rights of the oppressed Bahá'í religious minority in Iran. The chairman and the ranking minority member of this subcommittee, Representatives Christopher Smith and Tom Lantos, have been instrumental in the passage since 1982 of seven Congressional Resolutions calling for the emancipation of the Iranian Bahá'í community.

Following the Islamic revolution in Iran dozens of Bahá'ís were being attacked and executed every year and hundreds were being jailed and tortured. Together with annual resolutions by the UN Commission on Human Rights and the UN General Assembly condemning Iran's treatment of the Bahá'ís, the Congressional resolutions cast a spotlight of international censure on the Iranian regime and helped to dissuade it from continuing the bloody pogrom against the Bahá'ís.

The status of the Bahá'ís in Iran is unambiguous. Classified as "unprotected infidels," the approximately 300,000 members of the Bahá'í Faith have no legal rights. Killing a Bahá'í does not constitute homicide. A Bahá'í may not legally enforce a contract, inherit property, be employed by the government, collect pensions earned over a lifetime of service, or attend universities. Bahá'ís are routinely jailed and their personal properties are confiscated. A secret government document published in 1993 by the UN Commission on Human Rights confirms that anti-Bahá'í actions are part of the Iranian government's deliberate policy. Produced by Iran's Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council and endorsed by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, this "blueprint" sets forth guidelines for dealing with "the Bahá'í question" so that the Bahá'ís' "progress and development shall be blocked."

Executions, Death Sentences and Imprisonments

Since 1979 more than 200 Bahá'ís have been killed and fifteen Bahá'í leaders have disappeared and are presumed dead. As of today sixteen Bahá'ís are in prison because of their religion. Four of the prisoners are on death row, two of them on charges of apostasy. Arbitrary arrests occur regularly in many parts of the country. In the last three years some 200 Bahá'ís have been detained for periods ranging from forty-eight hours to six months in cities such as Yazd, Esfahan, Semnan, Babol, Kermanshah, Mashhad, Shiraz, Tankabon, Ahvaz, Kerman, Karaj, and Tehran.

It has been apparent for some time that the authorities have adopted a strategy of focussing their efforts, successively, on Bahá'í communities in different parts of the country, in order to determine forms of pressure that may succeed in intimidating their members and suffocating the religion's spiritual life. Currently, the province of Khorasan, of which Mashhad is the capital, has become the focal point of this campaign. Of the sixteen Bahá'ís now in prison, ten are from Khorasan and, of those, seven are from Mashhad. Of particular concern currently is the situation of Mr. Ruhollah Rohani who has been in prison in Mashhad since September 1997 without permission for relatives to visit him. His fate is not clear.

Recent events in Khorasan

On May 1, 1998 authorities in Mashhad surrounded and raided the home of a Bahá'í family where a class for youth was being held. The teacher, Mrs. Sonia Ahmadi, and the owner of the house, Mr. Manuchehr Ziai, along with twelve students aged fifteen and sixteen, were arrested and detained for one week. They were hastily sentenced without having the chance to engage a lawyer. Mrs. Ahmadi and Mr. Ziai were sentenced to three years' imprisonment while the twelve students were released on parole, having been given, despite their age, suspended sentences of five years' imprisonment to be activated should they ever again commit the "crime" of taking part in Bahá'í moral education classes.

In Birjand Mr. Jamaleddin Hajipur and Mr. Mansur Mehrabi (a.k.a. Mansur Mehrabkhani) were arrested last year and sentenced without charges to two years' imprisonment and confiscation of their property. They appealed, and the Court of Appeals returned an extraordinary verdict confirming the lower court's sentence. The Appeals Court stated that "Baha'ism is recognized as an illegal organization," thus making a mockery of the Iranian government's claim that Bahá'ís retain their right to the observance of their religious beliefs.

The verdict brought against the defendants mentions that they have "regularly been holding Š meetings on 'Bahá'í Life'," adducing such activities as evidence of criminal behavior, including "espionage" for the state of Israel. It is startling that the court judgement accepts as evidence of illegal activity such actions as holding classes for Bahá'í youth in the English language, science, and technology. The verdict also notes, without embarrassment on the part of the Iranian judicial authorities, that the two men carried out these activities "with the intention of improving the standard of education of Bahá'í students and their families." The context in which the court decision should be seen is that the Iranian regime has excluded Bahá'ís from higher education solely on the grounds of their religious affiliation.

No change in situation since the election of President Khatami

We have been asked whether there have been any changes in the attitude of the government towards Iran's Bahá'í citizens since President Khatami took office. We regret that, despite our initial hopes, events such as those mentioned above demonstrate that there has been no discernible improvement. The recent events in Mashhad may, indeed, indicate an intensification of efforts to terrorize and intimidate the community.

For a Western mind it is difficult to understand why a regime which is gradually permitting a degree of pluralism in political and social life should be bent on suppressing an apolitical minority that threatens no one or to understand why other voices in Iran's political spectrum would likewise be unwilling to grant even minimal civil rights to Iran's Bahá'í citizens. The explanation lies in the sinister interaction of political opportunism and unexamined religious prejudice that determine all aspects of this matter.

The current circumstances should be seen in the context of the unique nature of the persecution to which Iranian Bahá'ís have been subjected for over a century. The Iranian Bahá'í community has frequently served as a scapegoat used by various factions struggling for political ascendancy. This has been the case regardless of the changes in political or dynastic regimes. Whenever political leaders have felt a need to divert public attention from some economic, social, or political issue, they have found the Bahá'í community an easy target because of the senseless hostility and prejudice inculcated in the public by generations of ecclesiastical propaganda.

Only two weeks ago the Iranian state news agency cited a 1986 declaration made by Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the most prestigious educational institution in the Muslim world, to the effect that "any Muslim adopting the faith of Bahaism would be considered an apostate." The news article stated that the Bahá'í Faith "is false and it has nothing to do with Islam, or even with Judaism or Christianity."

Earlier this year a committee of senior clerics in Saudi Arabia issued a religious decree, or fatwa, repudiating the concept of "the unity of religions" and rejecting the idea that different religions may co-exist as equals. The fatwa states that "there exists no true religion on earth except Islam. All previous religions are abrogated, and those people who follow any religion but Islam are not acceptable in the sight of God." And further, "Muhammad is the last Prophet, and there is no other Prophet to follow Muhammad, who is the Prophet for the entire human race."

The belief that Muhammad was the last prophet of God and that with him divine revelation came to an end underlies the continued persecution of the Bahá'ís in Iran in spite of the Bahá'í acknowledgement of the divine origin of Islam and other religions. The Government of Iran has repeatedly stated that the Bahá'í Faith is not a religion but a political conspiracy. To recognize the Bahá'í Faith as a religion would, therefore, be tantamount to denying the principles of Islam as understood by its clerical hierarchies.

Continued international pressure is essential to the protection of the Bahá'í community

To sum up, we see no evidence of a change in policy toward Iran's Bahá'í minority. The Bahá'ís in that country continue to be denied jobs, education, and access to many state services, solely because of their religious affiliation. They are outside the rule of law and are not protected under the constitution. Their homes and properties are randomly expropriated. They continue to be imprisoned and mistreated in an effort to compel them to recant their faith and to convert to Islam. There is no evidence that the secret plan adopted by the Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council for the extermination of the Bahá'í community has been abrogated or withdrawn.

The 1997 UN General Assembly resolution on human rights in Iran, calling for the emancipation of the Bahá'í community, offers the clearest expression of what the international community expects of the Iranian authorities. Any relaxation of pressure in the Bahá'í case or any omission of reference to it in UN resolutions would have the inevitable effect of encouraging factions within the regime to compete with one another in demonstrating their determination to root out "the Bahá'í heresy." The effect would be to jeopardize the achievements of the international community, first of all the United States, in protecting the beleaguered Bahá'ís from the most brutal forms of repression.

It is not the actions of the Bahá'ís but the circumstances of Iranian history that have conspired to make "the Bahá'í case" a litmus test of sincerity for Iranian public figures who represent themselves as voices of reform and progress.

We call upon the Government of the United States to continue playing a primary role in defending the principles of religious freedom and all human rights throughout the world.

©Copyright 1998 The National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United States.

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