The Baha’i faith, Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority, has long been the target of persecution and systematic oppression by the country’s authorities. The Iranian government’s official policy, approved by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, has been to impede the advancement and growth of the Baha’i community through various measures, including expulsion from universities and exclusion from influential positions, particularly in the education sector. Human rights activists, however, are strategizing against the persecution of Baha’i in Iran.
The Glory of God
Baha’u’llah, whose name means, “the Glory of God,” was born in Tehran in 1817. He was a member of Iran’s nobility and could have pursued a government career. However, he chose to follow a newly-formed religious Babi movement led by a prophet known as “the Bab.” This movement called for social reform and advocated for women’s rights. The Bab declared his teachings a divine revelation. He also claimed they foretold the arrival of a new manifestation of God, a belief that caused controversy. In 1850, a firing squad executed the Bab for heresy. Mobs also attacked and killed many of his followers. Despite these dangers, Baha’u’llah continued to follow the teachings of the Bab and eventually became the leader of the Baha’i faith.
Baha’u’llah endured imprisonment and exile throughout his life due to his religious beliefs. When he joined the Babi movement, the government responded by detaining him in an unclean subterranean jail. When they released him, they exiled him to Baghdad where he declared himself as the manifestation of God that the Bab prophesized. Because Baha’u’llah’ gained a significant number of followers, the Ottoman officials banished him to the prison city of Akka in Palestine, where he lived until his death in 1892. Today, Baha’u’llah’s shrine in Israel is a major pilgrimage site for members of the Baha’i faith.
Why the Islamic Republic Persecutes the Baha’i
In Iran, the constitution designates Twelver Shia as the country’s official religion, making it unique among Muslim nations. Despite acknowledging Islam’s legitimacy, the Baha’i feel that their faith supersedes Islam’s doctrines regarding the Twelver Shia messiah. Since the Baha’i believe it is their duty to propagate their religion, that is a fundamental tenet that the Twelver Shia strongly opposes. Persecution of the Baha’i stems from this opposition.
The Iranian regime actively rejects the legitimacy of the Baha’i faith. Khamenei’s official website refers to Baha’i followers as “impure” non-believers and “enemies” of the Shia faith. Khamenei urges his followers to avoid social interaction with the Baha’i and emphasizes the importance of confronting the deceptions of the Baha’i faith. Furthermore, the regime’s efforts to suppress the Baha’i religion go beyond just rhetoric. It prohibits Baha’i from pursuing higher education and excludes them from government employment. In recent years, the Baha’i face more arbitrary arrests as well as increased instances of torture and other forms of mistreatment from authorities and state media.
Continued Persecution of Baha’i
The Iranian regime’s ultimate aim is to force Baha’i followers to leave the country in large numbers. Negative propaganda about the Bahai faith is widely disseminated through Iran’s educational system and media. Additionally, Baha’i followers are not allowed to publicly mourn their dead or establish their own cemeteries.
One recent example of the persecution of Baha’i in Iran is the August 2022 attack on the village of Roshankouh. Government agents raided the village and destroyed six homes that Baha’i residents owned. Reports indicate that the agents confiscated the villagers’ mobile phones to prevent them from documenting the incident. Despite this, some footage of the attack has emerged online, revealing the emotional distress that the villagers experienced, including children and the elderly. Human rights organizations have condemned this attack and called on the Iranian government to end its persecution of the Baha’i community.
Activists Push Back Against the Persecution
Recent social media posts have condemned the destruction of Baha’i homes in a village near Sari, Iran. Iranians have used the platform to argue that the regime’s official reasons for the destruction of homes, such as “encroachment on public land,” are just excuses for the persecution of Baha’i. They have also shared images of fatwas and rulings by Shia jurists, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, against the Baha’i faith and the Baha’is, describing them as “inhumane” and “fascistic.”
According to Iranian human rights activist, Musa Barzin Khalifelou, there may be little recourse through the legal system. However, Khalifelou has suggested that Iranians living abroad can play a significant role in stopping the oppression of the Baha’i community in Iran. One way to do this is by informing international organizations and filing complaints with them. Additionally, Khalifelou believes that the principle of “Universal Jurisdiction” could be effective in prosecuting those responsible for the persecution of Baha’i. This principle allows for certain crimes such as torture, crimes against humanity and war crimes to be prosecuted in other countries. Since the Iranian government aims to eliminate the Baha’i community, this principle could lead to the arrest and trial of those responsible for giving the orders and their agents. Through such actions, Khalifelou argues that Iranians abroad can help bring an end to the persecution of Baha’i in Iran.
– Noura Matalqa