SINCE THE election of President Khatami more than a year ago, Iran watchers have been hoping for signs of new tolerance in that nation's policies. But if treatment of the most vulnerable minority is any indication, there is little reason to cheer Iran's recent record. Members of the Baha'i faith, a religion that claims about 6 million adherents worldwide and 300,000 in Iran, have been facing increasingly vicious persecution.
Since its religious revolution, Iran has made life difficult for all but its dominant Shiite Muslims. Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians at least enjoy certain protections; not so Baha'is, who as followers of a religion that emerged in Iran and after Islam -- in the mid-19th century -- are viewed as particularly noxious apostates. In 1993 a United Nations official uncovered an Iranian government document outlining a policy amounting to the eradication of the Baha'i community. Iran's government said the document was a fake, but -- as the U.S. State Department noted in its annual human rights report -- "it appears to be an accurate reflection of current government practice."
Thus, Baha'i youth are denied access to universities; Baha'i marriages are unrecognized, opening women to charges of prostitution; Baha'i religious properties have been confiscated and desecrated; the community is not allowed to elect leaders; children are considered illegitimate and so cannot inherit property. In the past two decades, some 200 Baha'is have been killed or executed, including a prisoner hung last July allegedly for converting a Muslim woman to the Baha'i faith.
This month the government moved to shut down a Baha'i university created after Baha'i faculty and students were expelled from all other schools of higher learning. Officials ransacked more than 500 homes, most connected in some way with the university. Thirty-six Baha'i educators were arrested. Two more prisoners, jailed simply for participating in religious gatherings, have had their death sentences officially confirmed.
"Executing people for the practice of their religious faith is contrary to the most fundamental human rights principles," the White House said in response. How can such a self-evident principle even needs to be restated?