Bahai News - Religious Repression in Khomeini's Iran The Christian Century, Volume 97, Number 26, August 13-20, 1980

[page 786]

Religious Repression
in Khomeini's Iran

Whether one sees in Iran a nation on the brink of disintegration, a fascist revolution, or a healthy struggle toward fulfillment, the present situation holds out little hope for religious minorities.
LINDA MARIE DELLOFF

From the [Iranian revolutionary] movement's point of view, minorities ought to have no fears. The model is 'Ali [Muhammad's successor]. 'Ali dealt justly with minorities. He rebuked 'Umar for adjudicating a case against a Jew just because the other party was a Muslim, and he rebuked 'Umar for being discourteous to a Jew in court. A few of the revolutionaries point out that the Jews experienced a period of intellectual glory in Muslim Spain and were better off there than under Christianity. The case might be stronger if they could also claim that minorities were better off under Islam than under the secular modern West. That is a challenge for the revolution to live up to.

    THUS WRITES Michael M. Fischer in a just-released book, Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution (Harvard University Press, $17.50). But events have moved quickly in the Iranian revolution, and books are published some months after they are written. For the time being, at least, it seems dramatically and disturbingly clear that the revolution has failed to meet the challenge of religious toleration. Whether that challenge has even been engaged, and by whom, is questionable. In Iran, a country that is 98 per cent Muslim and dominated by the Shi'ite sect of that faith, religious repression has proliferated recently, affecting three general groups: (1) faiths that are supposed to be "protected" according to tradition and the constitution, (2) some members of the majority religion itself, and (3) some non-Muslims who are denied any sort of "protected" status or acceptance.

    Historically, Jews and Christians have been designated as "protected subjects" in Iran; they are recognized as sharing a common lineage with Islam, which venerates the Bible as one of its sources (followers of the other two faiths are called "People of the Book") and which acknowledges a line of prophets including Moses and Jesus, culminating in Muhammad. The Koran advocates tolerance for these related religions, and the new Islamic constitution provides for freedom to follow them, as well as the country's ancient faith, Zoroastrianism - as long as worship is conducted "within the law." This stricture opens the minority groups to arbitrary regulation by the revolutionary authorities, and seems to be functioning as a catch-all rationalization for recent outbreaks of severe persecution of Jews and Christians, and of other religious bodies as well.

Mounting Persecution of Jews

    Under the revolution, Jews have experienced intensifying hostility; they are seen to break the law by "supporting Zionism" - a charge stemming primarily from Israel's cooperation with the former shah, much of which was based on purchases of Iranian oil. Also operative is the early and strong support for the Iranian revolution by Israel's arch-rival, the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

    On June 5 of this year, Albert Danielpour, a leader of the small Iranian Jewish community (said now to number approximately 50,000, down from 80,000 at the beginning of the revolution), was executed in Hamadan, accused of having "Zionist connections," of being a spy for the CIA and for Israel, and of "cooperating in establishing the state of Israel." Arrested in January, Danielpour had elicited assurances from Ayatollah Khomeini that he would not be executed. Nevertheless, after a brief night trial by another ayatollah - at which Danielpour denied all charges - he was summarily killed and his businesses were seized. (In some of his writings Khomeini has condemned Jews, Christians and Baha'is.) The American Jewish Congress called the execution an "appalling act" that "causes us deep concern for the fate of the several dozen other Jews currently held by Iranian authorities on various contrived and unfounded charges."

    In another recent case, four members of a Jewish family were charged with, among other crimes, possessing Israeli coins and having provided accommodations for Israeli pilots. According to the New York Times, the four were reportedly given sentences of up to 15 years. Their trial prompted a group of young Jewish intellectuals - all of whom identified themselves as committed supporters of the revolution - to write an open letter to President Abolhassan Bani- Sadr charging that discrimination against

___________
Ms. Delloff is an associate editor of the Century.


[page 787]

minorities, "especially against Jews, is being strongly felt."

    Earlier in the revolution, Jews had made other explicit expressions if solidarity with the movement's goals; their participation included significant monetary contributions. Nonetheless, in what Harvard anthropologist Fischer calls "an extraordinary warning to the Jewish community," a prominent businessman and Jewish leader, Habib Elghanian, was executed by a revolutionary court on May 9, 1979, for the crime of "contact with Israel and Zionism." Two months later, reports Fischer, a Jewish businessman was assassinated in Isfahan, allegedly in retaliation for Israeli raids on Lebanon.

    Since that time persecution of Jews has increased steadily. An Iranian businessman who lives in New York and who keeps in close touch with his country told a New York Times reporter that not long ago a paper was placed under the doors of Jewish homes and businesses in Iran. Addressed to "the Jews of Iran," it described them as "blood-sucking people" and warned them to "leave this land as soon as possible; otherwise, every Jew, young and old, will be massacred and your wealth will be looted." Though many Iranian Jews are indeed well-to-do, George E. Gruen of the American Jewish Committee has stated that some of the Jews currently imprisoned are not wealthy, nor are they community leaders.

    In a conversation with me following the publication of his book, anthropologist Fischer, who conducted research in Iran for a number of years, noted that some Iranians, if pressed, will make a distinction between Judaism and Zionism. If not pressed, they won't. Right now it seems that no one other than the Iranian Jews and American Jewish organizations is doing any pressing.

The Situation of the Christian Minority

    And what of Christians - another of the supposedly protected religious minorities? The largest Christian groups in Iran are the Armenians, who number some 270,000, and the Assyrians (or Nestorians), of whom there are approximately 32,000. Most of these Christians have demonstrated their loyalty to the revolution. As Fischer notes in his book, during 'Ashura (a time of mourning for a Shi'ite saint), a Christian contingent marched, chanting "Din-i ma mashihi'st" ("Our religion is Christianity") and "Rahbar-i ma Khumeyni'st" ("Our leader is Khomeini").

    During the height of the revolution, the Armenian archbishop announced that public religious festivities would be suspended in solidarity with the movement. But despite such steps there have been sporadic outbreaks of violence, and the recent killings of other Christians, Fischer told me, are causing the Assyrians and Armenians to "hold tight," awaiting further developments.

    The most intense persecution of Christians has been directed against the very small group of Anglicans in the country. In February, Aristo Sayeh, the Anglican vicar in Shiraz, was found with his throat slit. Earlier, Muslim authorities had seized two Anglican hospitals, six schools and a farm for blind children in Isfahan. They have continually intimidated Anglican churchmen to relinquish what they describe as a missing hoard of money.

    Last October, gunmen attacked Anglican Bishop Hassan Barnaba Dehquani-Tafti and his wife while they slept. Though bullets lodged in the pillow near the bishop's head, he was not hit; however, his wife was wounded in the arm. The two fled the country, but the bishop's English secretary, Jean Waddell, remained in Iran and on May 1 was the victim of a home invasion by a team of gunmen who were apparently looking for another Anglican clergyman. They first attempted to strangle the woman, then fired two shots into her chest (at last report she remained in serious condition). A week later the bishop's 24-year-old son, Bahram, was gunned down on a Tehran street. The bishop, now in seclusion in Britain, has attributed all these attacks to "fanatics supported by some religious leaders."

    Anglicanism has existed in Iran for 150 years, but according to Time, the 1,000 native believers are associated with British influence, giving rise to suspicion that they are spies for the West. Further, the Anglicans (including Bishop Dehquani-Tafti) are converts from Islam, making them anathema in this period of Iranian Islamicization.

    Other Christians represented in Iran in tiny numbers include Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and a smattering of various Protestant groups. Islamic revolutionary guards recently carried out several raids on the Andisheh school in Tehran, operated by the Salesian sisters of St. John Bosco and by Salesian priests, who were accused of spying and of having contact with Israel. Of the some 40,000 Catholics in Iran, many are of the Catholic Chaldean rite; their spiritual leader is Archbishop Youhannan Semaan Issayi, from whom all correspondence ceased "two weeks ago," according to a July 25 statement by a worried spokesperson in the U.S.

Zoroastrians and others

    In his book, Michael Fischer notes that in the winter of 1978, handbills and wall graffiti called for the death not only of Jews, Assyrians and Armenians but also of adherents of the country's other protected faith, Zoroastrianism, the religion of ancient Persia until the Muslim invasion of 636 A.D., which precipitated centuries of persecution of the group. (There are now fewer than 50,000 Zoroastrians in Iran.) Fischer records that after the fall of the former shah, some guerrillas entered the main Zoroastrian house of worship, removed the portrait of the Prophet Zoroaster, and replaced it with one of Khomeini.


[page 788]

    George Braswell, Jr. (see his article on Iran in the July 16-23 Century), who worked in Iran for a lengthy period, remarked in an interview that just before the revolution he had had good contacts with the Zoroastrians, who were then excited about building a new temple. But now, says Braswell, "all that has changed." Fischer reports that according to information received since the completion of his book, the Zoroastrians are "scared and sitting tight."

    Even some Iranian Muslims have expressed fears. According to Fischer's book, a leader of the Shaykhi sect (part of Shi'ism but having roots in common with Baha'ism and Bábism, minority faiths) was assassinated in Kirman in December 1979. Members of another Shi'ite branch, the Ismailis, have also been anxious. According to Fischer, their leaders were involved in the revolution, but many villager-followers (like numerous other Muslim villagers) remained faithful to the shah, who had protected them against the excesses of the mullahs. Or in many cases the villagers simply were bewildered by the events of the revolution and did not voice support.

    But at least these groups are Shi'ite, members of the dominant state religion. Sunni Muslims, who are the majority in all other Muslim states except Iraq, are a minority in Iran. The Iranian Sunnis most well known to the West are the Kurds, who warred against Ayatollah Khomeini's regime in its early days (supporting the revolution yet desiring autonomy for themselves) but who seem to have been at least temporarily subdued. Fischer makes the observation that the Kurds

worried that Khomeyni always spoke of Iran as a Shi'ite state, never acknowledging that there were Sunnis as well; and they spoke bitterly of past humiliations when they had gone to Tehran or to other Shi'ite parts of Iran and were caught, for instance, performing the namaz [prayer] differently.

Suppression of the Baha'i Sect

    Of all the religious minorities in Iran, one stands out as being the most subject to continual harassment: Baha'ism, which, unlike other minorities, has no "protected" status. In contrast with every other persecuted faith, Baha'ism is regarded by Muslims as a heresy - a particularly galling one that has prompted more than a century of repression against the group.

    In 1844 a young merchant of Shiraz, who came to be known as the Báb, founded a new faith which rejected the literal interpretation of the Koran and which forecast the coming of the Promised One, in whom all Shi'ite Muslims believe. The Báb was accused of heresy, imprisoned and finally executed, as were 20,000 of his followers. Then 13 years after the death of the Báb, one of his disciples claimed to be the Promised One, and was so hailed by the Báb's worshipers. This disciple was called Baha'u'llah and his followers Baha'is. Baha'u'llah was kept in confinement and exile for 40 years, and in 1868 he was banished by the Ottoman emperor to the Holy Land; he died near Akka in 1892. Because of these and other events important to the faith, Baha'is holiest shrines are located in Israel (its world headquarters is in Haifa). The Muslims do not believe that Baha'u'llah was the Promised One, whom they still await, and for them the Baha'is' claim is a constant irritant.

    Because Baha'is have been oppressed in Iran from the outset, the present situation, according to one knowledgeable source, simple provides a new pretext for what he calls the worst outbreak of persecution since the beginning of the faith. The conditions are seen to be even worse than the bloody riots of 1955, which occurred during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan when passions, especially of the clergy, run very high.

    In May of that year, the Iranian minister of the interior issued orders for the suppression of the Baha'i sect, which then had 700,000 followers in the country (it now claims fewer than 500,000). This official decree followed riots in which Muslims looted the homes and temples of Baha'is and drove them from their communities. The violence also included arson, rape, desecration of graves and mutilation of exhumed bodies. Religious leaders came on the radio to whip up hysteria, and many newspapers around the globe carried a picture of the Muslim mullah Falsafi wielding a pickax in order to begin the destruction of the dome of the Baha'is' spiritual center. But when the international Baha'i organization appealed to the United Nations, Iranian officials maintained that there were no Baha'is in Iran.

    Now as the Islamicization of the nation has intensified under the revolution, persecution of Baha'is is pervasive. In September of 1979, mobs destroyed the holiest Baha'i shrine in Iran, the House of the


[page 789]

Báb. Thousands of Baha'is have been turned out of their homes, have lost their jobs and had their properties confiscated. Their schools and other centers have been taken over, along with their Tehran headquarters. Their executive officer (they have no clergy) has been kidnapped, and his whereabouts is unknown. On July 15 the New York Times reported that two Baha'is were put to death in the north-western city of Tabriz. Charges against them included "running the Baha'is' center" in that city.

    The men were also accused of two other charges which have plagued the Baha'is for many years. One was "aiding Israel," a claim which could conveniently be brought against any Baha'i because the world center of the faith is in Haifa. The other charge was "immorality," specifically in this case "spreading prostitution." According to one source, this type of accusation has a long history which he thinks goes back to a very early incident in the development of the faith. One of the Baha'is' principles is complete equality of the sexes (along with such other tenets as universal compulsory education, advocacy of a universal language and a universal religion). During a former period, one outstanding Baha'i was a woman who had been educated in secret because of prevailing Muslim strictures against emancipation of women. At a time of many conversions to the faith, she was so joyful that she pulled the veil from her face - such a traumatic event for some of the men present that they slit their throats. Since that time, the Shi'ites have added immorality to other charges against the Baha'is.

    Some developments reminiscent of 1955 have occurred recently. The June 24 edition of Le Monde related that a prominent Muslim clergyman, Ayatollah Sadoughi, had instructed a crowd in Yazd to "hunt down" the Baha'is and "deliver them to the revolutionary courts." His pronouncement was reproduced in the official news organ Inguilab Islami, giving it, according to Le Monde, "dangerous publicity." The Iranian newspaper Etelaat on June 22 published an official communiqué calling for the dismissal of all employees confessing to be Baha'is (there are reportedly efforts under way to terrorize Baha'is into converting into Islam). In its July 8 issue, Le Monde carried another story titled "The Repression Intensifies," which reported trials of four Baha'is on charges of being Israeli spies, plotting against the state religion, participating in Baha'i conferences, and engaging in immorality.

    Frequently the Muslims refuse even to recognize Baha'ism as a religious faith (thus denying legality to Baha'i marriages), labeling it instead a political group - though in descriptions of their beliefs, the Baha'is consider themselves completely nonpolitical; theoretically no Baha'i is allowed to participate in partisan politics or to accept any political post. But their policy of compulsory education has made them an upwardly mobile group in Iran; many of their number gained high government jobs under the shah, who may have particularly trusted them, knowing that they were not influenced by his enemies, the Muslim mullahs. These conditions have further stigmatized the Baha'is in the eyes of the revolution. Ironically, Iran, as its country of origin, holds a special place in the writings of Baha'ism and is dear to the Baha'i faithful worldwide.

'Let All Religious People Pray'

    No one anywhere knows quite what to expect next in Iran nor what, if any, steps can be taken by outsiders to ease the situation. Many around the world feel that it is best to remain quiet, keep hands off and hope that the difficulties will eventually resolve themselves. Not sharing the "hands off" attitude was Ramsey Clark's American delegation which visited Iran in June, though the members went with no expressed intentions concerning the country's religious circumstances. In fact it seems that the delegation was scarcely aware of the religious repression there. In an interview with Religious News Service, delegation member Paul M. Washington, rector of the Episcopal Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, was asked whether he discussed with the Iranians the "extensively reported persecution of the tiny Episcopal Church in Iran." Replied Washington: "I must confess I haven't heard about it. It went completely out of my mind when I was there." When reminded of the events by the interviewer, Washington said: "I have some faint recollection of that now. I think we all realized that there are many groups with many different political postures."

    Upon the delegation's return from Iran, Ramsey Clark discussed the trip in the Nation, advocating that we "give thanks that throughout all the turbulence in Iran during the seventeen months since the Shah's last Prime Minister left and in a period when Americans have been assassinated, murdered and


[page 790]

abused in many countries, not a single American has been killed or injured in Iran by Iranians." But Clark did not mention the dead Iranians, nor did he suggest that we give thanks that more of them have not been killed. He ends his article with this call:

Let all religious people pray humbly to their God throughout our nation that no harm will befall our hostages, that they will be reunited with their loved ones soon, that the Iranian people will find a new fulfillment of their own choice, freely and independently .... If fifty million Americans gave such a prayer during the coming Sabbath days, the Iranians, a deeply religious people, would respond generously.

Toward whom? one is tempted to ask.

    A religious leader who asked not to be identified because of harm that might come to his fellows in Iran was deeply disturbed over the Clark group's trip, commenting that if the American religionists had had any understanding of the religious situation in Iran, they would never have gone. He felt that the motives of the delegation were not malign, but that its members lacked awareness and were generally uninformed. By their visit, he remarked, they lent legitimacy to a regime that is allowing members of his faith and of other minorities to be severely persecuted.

    Clark and others may be attempting so intensely - and sincerely - to understand the Iranian revolution and to cross-culturize their stance toward the world that they have lost sight of certain values that ought to transcend cultural variations. It does not seem that Iran's revolution is one in which a certain number necessarily get stepped on because they just happen to be in the way; rather the repression seems to have much deeper roots and perhaps is actually part of the revolutionary ideology itself.

    Clark's statements in the Nation suggest that he thinks that if we just pray hard enough, the Iranians will let our hostages go and, apparently, do other good things as well. He seems to think that the problems arise simply out of mutual misunderstanding, the fault for which lies mostly with the West. He is right that we misunderstand the Iranians, but it is not the simple resolution of a misunderstanding that would seem to be in question with regard to religious repression; it is more the way the present leaders in Iran see their world now and as they want it ideally to be.

Eradication of the 'Evolutionary'

Fergus M. Bordewich, an American journalist who used to live in Iran and who edited an English-language newspaper there, thinks the Western misunderstanding of the revolution (deriving from the sometimes willful misunderstanding by the Western press) exists at the most basic level. In the July issue of Harper's he argues that

the revolutionary leaders have methodically been working to restructure Iranian society, but even the most careful readers of the American press would be hard put to say just what it is the ayatollahs have in mind. That is unfortunate, because the ayatollahs appear to be leading one of the most comprehensively fascist movements the world has seen in thirty-five years.

Drawing his definition of fascism from John Weiss's The Fascist Tradition, Bordewich writes that it is "the effort of entrenched conservative groups to save their way of life, privileges, and class values from destruction by industrialization, urbanization, and socialist or liberal social policies." In other words, one may extrapolate, anything "evolutionary" - whether of an economic, a social or a religious nature - is to be eradicated.

    Bordewich does not discuss religious persecution per se except to suggest that what is seen by some to be anti-Semitism is actually political in nature: "The ayatollahs have given their cachet to a different kind of racism by translating the notion of 'spiritual purity' onto the political plane."

    Whether the persecution of religious groups in Iran rests in what is ultimately a political goal, or in a religious tendency toward self-purification by weeding out those who may be seen as polluters, or in some other set of factors, the results are the same: Albert Danielpour, Bahram Dehquani-Tafti and others lie dead, while their fellow believers fear the same fate.

    I asked anthropologist Fischer what he thinks about the future, now that some time has passed since he wrote of the religious- toleration challenge to the revolution. He replied that it depends on which elements of the movement win out - the progressive or the conservative. But whether one sees in Iran a nation on the brink of complete internal disruption and disintegration, as many do, or whether one thinks that view is mistaken and sees instead a fascist revolution in steady though halting development, or whether one sees a healthy struggle toward "new fulfillment of their own," as Ramsey Clark does, the present situation holds out little hope for Iran's religious minorities.


©Copyright 1980, The Christian Century

Top 19 Baha'i Sites Page last updated/revised 081600
Return to the Bahá'í Association's Main Web Page