PARIS, Nov 17 (Reuters) -- French members of the Bahai faith said on Tuesday that fellow believers in Iran were the target of a new wave of persecution, caught in a power struggle between reformists and Islamic fundamentalists.
"When there is a struggle for power, it is always the minorities who are caught in between and become scapegoats," Foad Saberan, a Frenchman of Iranian origin, told a news conference marking the 100th anniversary of an organised French Bahai community.
He said Iran's 350,000 Bahais were persecuted by Moslem fundamentalists seeking to undermine President Mohammad Khatami, a moderate Shi'ite cleric.
"The president is clearly a humanist who favours protecting religious minorities. His overtures to Iranian Christians are unprecedented in Iranian history. Because of that, hardliners are trying to strangle the Bahais," Saberan said.
Khatami plans to visit France in February, his first visit to a European country since being elected in 1997. The French Bahais said they planned to appeal to him then in favour of co-religionists in Iran, including several sentenced to death.
The Bahai faith originated from a Moslem splinter group in Iran 150 years ago. It claims six million members worldwide, including in mainly Moslem Iran, where it is officially termed "a misleading and wayward sect."
Bahais abroad say more than 200 members of their faith have been executed in Iran for their religious beliefs since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
The French Bahais accused Iranian authorities last month of launching a major crackdown against Bahais in 14 cities, arresting 36 people and looting more than 500 homes.
Those arrested were professors and teachers conducting "open university"-type courses for young Bahais, said by their French fellow believers to be banned by the authorities from attending universities.
French Bahai members told reporters all but four of those arrested in the crackdown on educators had since been released, but prevented from resuming teaching.
"But the regime is still hounding the Bahais. Now, those who received pensions have not only seen pension payments halted but their possessions are being confiscated to reimburse the state for pensions paid in the past," Saberan alleged.
He also said Bahai graveyards were being bulldozed without families being told where remains were taken.
But the French Bahais said two Iranians said to have had death sentences confirmed against them in September, Sirus Zabihi-Muqaddam and Hedayat Kashefi Najafabadi, were still alive and human rights groups across the world were working to save them. They were said to have been arrested in October 1997 for violating a ban on holding meetings about family life.
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