The Baha’is in Iran: Twenty Years of Repression

The Baha’is in Iran: Twenty Years of Repression – non-Muslim religious minority

Firuz Kazemzadeh

THE Islamic Republic of Iran proclaims Shi’i Islam as its state religion, and recognizes only Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism as other true religions. The three minority faiths are legitimized by the Constitution and accorded certain legal and political rights. The Baha’is, however, Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority, are not mentioned in the Constitution and have the status of unprotected infidels. Since the onset of the Islamic revolution in the fall of 1978, more than 200 Baha’is, mostly leaders of the community, have been put to death. Baha’i institutions have been disbanded, community properties confiscated, holy places demolished, and cemeteries desecrated. Baha’is have no civil rights. They cannot hold government jobs, enforce legal contracts, practice law, collect pensions, attend institutions of higher learning, and openly practice their faith.

The hostility of the Iranian clerical establishment that took over the government in early 1979 was not a new phenomenon. It had roots in the nineteenth century when the clerical class saw its spiritual monopoly threatened by the spread of the Babi religion, the precursor of the Baha’i Faith. The Bab (Gate), founder of the movement, claimed to be not only the return of the twelfth imam expected by the Shi’is but a prophet and the herald of “him whom God shall manifest,” a messenger and bearer of a new revelation. The Bab’s claim to prophethood could not be reconciled with the traditional literalist interpretation of the Muslim belief that Muhammad was “the seal of the prophets” and Islam the ultimate religion. After several years of imprisonment, the Bab, who refused to recant, was publicly executed by a firing squad in June 1850 in Tabriz. The Babis resisted attacks by government forces in several localities. Thousands perished in the unequal struggles in Zanjan, Neyriz, and Mazandaran. In 1852 an unsuccessful attempt on the life of Naser ed-Din Shah by three Babis, aggrieved and exasperated by the execution of their leader, precipitated a massacre of scores of innocent men and women, among them the renowned poetess Tahereh. Most of the Babi leaders were wiped out, the surviving adherents were dispirited and disorganized. It seemed that the movement had been defeated, the old order restored, and the spiritual monopoly of the Shi’i clergy reaffirmed.

One of the prominent Babis, Mirza Hoseyn Ali Nouri, later known as Baha’u’llah, had been arrested in connection with the attempted assassination of the Shah. Despite the fact that he was found not guilty of participation, he was nevertheless exiled to Baghdad, where he proclaimed himself to be “him whom God shall manifest,” whose advent had been prophesied by the Bab. Although Baha’u’llah, at the urging of the Iranian ambassador, was removed by the Ottoman government from Baghdad first to Constantinople, then to Adrionople, and finally to the pestilential fortress-city of Acre (now Akko) on the shores of the Mediterranean, he gathered the Babi remnant and founded the Baha’i Faith. Baha’u’llah’s emissaries traveled through Iran, rallying the surviving Babis and spreading the new dispensation. The revitalized and growing Babi-Baha’i community once again began to attract the attention of the clergy and the government. Baha’u’llah commanded his followers that his teachings be spread only through peaceful means, that his followers be loyal to the government and obey the authorities. He taught that the purpose of his religion was the promotion of amity and concord among all peoples, races, and religions, but that did not lessen the fear and hatred of the more conservative elements dominant within the clerical establishment.

By the end of the nineteenth century the Baha’is found themselves under constant pressure from ecclesiastical and governmental authorities, and they were attacked on theological and moral grounds. They were declared heretics because of their belief that revelation was progressive and without end, meaning that the line of prophets stretched from the legendary Adam into the most distant future. Under this assumption, Muhammad was not the last prophet (as Islam claims) but rather one in a chain of revealers of divine will, a chain that includes not only Jesus and the prophets of Israel, but the founders of Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and other religions that Islam does not recognize. The mullahs execrated Baha’i teachings on the equality of men and women, the abolition of the notions of ritual impurity and dietary restrictions, the rejection of the practice of taqlid (imitation of a chosen religious leader), and the assertion of the freedom of the individual to investigate truth and adhere to a religion of his choice. The absence of clergy in the Baha’i Faith and the governance of the community by its freely and democratically elected representatives were other sources of hostility the mullahs as a class harbored against the Baha’is.

Western influences flooded Iran in the twentieth century. While the masses remained largely under clerical influence, the bureaucracy, the officers’ corps of the newly created national army, and the intellectual elite began to lose interest in the intricacies of the Sharia and in theological disputations. They welcomed Reza Shah’s attempts at modernization, which included unveiling women, restricting turban wearing, secularizing the educational system, and introducing Europeanized legal codes. The clergy that had helped Reza Khan ascend the throne (out of fear of a republic such as the one Mustafa Kemal Ataturk had established in Turkey) found itself marginalized and with greatly diminished influence in public life. The mullahs perceived similarities between some of the modernizing reforms and Baha’i teachings and linked their dislike for these reforms, and for Reza Shah, with their old hatred of the Baha’is. They spread rumors that the Shah himself was a Baha’i, and that Baha’is dominated the government and were the principal force for subverting Islam.

The two Pahlavi shahs were ambivalent about the Baha’is. On the one hand, since the Baha’i community included some of the best educated, most competent and loyal Iranians, the shahs used them in the service of the government; on the other, they resented Baha’i refusal to deify the monarchy. Moreover, they found it convenient in moments of crisis to placate the clergy by allowing it to attack the Baha’is, even permitting an occasional pogrom, provided it did not turn into a large-scale disturbance that would endanger public order or unduly increase the power of the clergy. The stronger the Pahlavi dictatorship grew, the more repressive it became toward the Baha’is; it closed their schools, prohibited their publications, refused to recognize their marriages, and turned them into second class citizens. To satisfy the more radically anti-Baha’i ecclesiastical elements and to steer them away from opposition to the monarchy, the government permitted and even encouraged the formation of the Hojjatiyeh Society in 1953. The founder and leader, Sheykh Mahmud Zekrzadeh Tavallai, better known as Shaykh Muhmud Halabi, was a fanatical enemy of the Baha’i Faith, which he had studied as a seminarian and to which one of his best friends had been converted (Tayyeb, 1982). The Hojjatiyeh Society was endorsed by leading clerics such as Ayatollah Borujerdi and worked in close cooperation with the SAVAK, the political police, and became the principal antagonist of the Baha’is. Its activities included publication of anti-Baha’i pamphlets, denunciation of Baha’is to the authorities, and the disruption of Baha’i gatherings by gangs of toughs. The Hojjatiyeh Society would play an important role in the persecution of the Baha’is after the Islamic revolution (Abedi, 3840, n.d.).

Whereas earlier attacks on Baha’is had been of a theological nature, because of the spread of nationalist sentiments among the educated elite, the mullahs added a new element to their rhetoric. To appeal to the changes in the mentality of the younger members of the upper class, the mullahs now accused the Baha’is of being unpatriotic or outright agents of foreign powers. In the 1930s there appeared a book which purported to be the memoirs of Kniaz Dalqurki, presumably Prince Dmitrii Dolgorukov, a one-time Russian minister in Tehran. The book describes how the minister had been sent by the tsar to Iran to subvert Islam, making Iran vulnerable to Russian penetration and eventual domination. The minister claims to have achieved his goal by influencing a young Iranian to proclaim himself a prophet, thus creating the Babi movement, which was nothing more than a Russian invention. No reputable scholar has ever doubted that the so-called Dalqurki memoirs were counterfeit. Nevertheless, this illiterate concoction found acceptance among a large segment of educated Iranians. In the last twenty years Iranian representatives at the UN have on occasion referred to it as proof that the Baha’i Faith is not a religion but a political movement serving foreign interests. As enemies changed, so did the accusations. Baha’is have been alleged to serve the Russian or British intelligence, the CIA, or Israel, depending on which country happened to be in disfavor at the time the allegations were made.

As the Islamic revolution gathered momentum in late summer 1978, anti-Baha’i ecclesiastical elements saw an opportunity to realize their goals of uprooting the Baha’i Faith from Iran. They were undoubtedly encouraged by the position taken by Ayatollah Khomeini who, in December 1978, while still in exile in France, expressed his views in an interview with Professor James Cockroft of Rutgers University.

Question: “Will there be either religious or political freedom for the

Baha’is under an Islamic government?

Answer: “They are a political faction. They are harmful. They will not be


Question: “How about their freedom of religion — religious practice?

Answer: “No.” (Martin, 1984, 31)

In the chaotic conditions that followed the overthrow of the shah, the Baha’i community was particularly vulnerable. In many parts of the country local clerical leaders, many connected with the Hojjatiyeh Society, organized attacks on individual Baha’is and seized Baha’i property. In a letter dated March 23, 1979, a clerical organization called the Foundation of the Dispossessed claimed title to all Baha’i properties, and turned over the house of the Bab, the holiest Baha’i shrine in Iran, to the prominent mullah, Sheykh Sadeq Khalkhali (Martin, 1984, 43-44). Protests of Baha’is from all over the world were of no avail. Appeals to the newly formed government headed by Mehdi Bazargan, a respected individual with a reputation for advocacy of human rights, were ignored in silence. In September, a mob led by mullahs and officials of the Department of Religious Affairs demolished the shrine. Throughout the country, properties belonging to the Baha’i community such as hospitals, community centers, libraries, and even cemeteries were seized without any legal basis or justification. Over the next several years a body of rules issued by leading mojtaheds (mullahs authorized to pass legal judgments) ratified the expropriation not only of all Baha’i community properties but in hundreds of cases the confiscation of private property, including homes, shops, and agricultural land.

The assault on the Baha’i community took many forms, one of which was the denial of employment that threatened to pauperize a large segment of the Baha’i population. One after another national and local government departments began to fire Baha’i employees without any attempt to conceal that the cause of dismissal was membership in the “misguided sect.” Hundreds of documents show that ecclesiastical, judiciary, and administrative bodies worked in concert to rid the civil service of every Baha’i whether he or she was a school teacher, doctor, nurse, army officer, or college professor. Thus a circular letter issued by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, dated December 7, 1981, states, “In the name of God, The Most Exalted,”

In accordance with paragraph 8 of article 29 of the human resources

rehabilitation policy for the ministries, governmental organizations and

other government-affiliated offices which was approved on 5/7/1360 [October

27, 1981] by the Consultative Islamic Council, the punishment for

membership in such misguided sects as are recognized by all Muslims to be

heretical to Islam, or in organizations whose doctrine and constitution are

founded on the rejection of divine religions, is permanent dismissal from

government employment. Moreover, by virtue of the contents of article 58 of

this policy, the aforementioned regulations are applicable to all employees

(including those who are liable by the employment of farming laws, etc.) of

governmental agencies, factories, banks, and companies, as well as

organizations similar to the governmental offices or associations thereof

that are either nationalized or confiscated by the government. The courts

are therefore bound to refrain from issuing verdicts in favor of such

employees as dismissed in accordance with the above specifications, and

whose membership in the misguided sects or organizations is proven.

(Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, December 7, 1981)

This circular letter was the basis for the dismissal of thousands of government employees. It was applied, and continues to be applied, as well by many private businesses controlled by individuals hostile to or intimidated in regard to the Baha’is. As late as 1994 the director of the Caryar Travel Agency dismissed a Baha’i employee;

With gratitude for your sincere services during the last ten years, we wish

you every success. Inasmuch as the personal data pertaining to the

employees of this company was requested through a recent questionnaire from

the Ministry of Islamic Guidance, and in light of the fact that you have

refused to conceal your belief and explicitly stated in this questionnaire

that you are a Baha’i, your employment is hereby terminated in accordance

with circular letter number 1/20361, dated 16/9/1360 [December 7, 1981]

from the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. (Caryar Travel Agency to Mr.

F.R., September 12, 1994)

The ruling announced in the Ministry’s circular letter has never been changed and is in effect today.

Over 10,000 government employees lost their jobs in the three or four years following the Islamic revolution, and none have received unemployment benefits. Moreover, the government issued a bizarre ruling that the dismissed employees repay all the salaries they had received during their years of service, and, in 1984, the Attorney General began to issue summonses demanding repayment. Since most Baha’is who had been government employees had no resources, it was impossible for them to comply. Some were imprisoned, but the demand was quietly dropped.

Perhaps less absurd, but equally cruel, was the government’s cancellation of all pensions to retired Baha’is. The military, the National Oil Company, universities, and industrial enterprises informed their former employees that they were not entitled to their pensions. Eleven years after the revolution, a Baha’i who applied for a pension he should have been receiving for years from the Etteka Company (an enterprise under the Ministry of Defense) was informed by the director that according to the decision of state authorities, followers of the “Baha’i sect” were not entitled to pensions and that, as he had clearly admitted to being a Baha’i, his pension could not be paid (Ministry of National Defense and Support of the Armed Forces to Mr. B., January 20, 1990). A letter from the head of the Insurance and Retirement Corporation of the Iranian Army informed another Baha’i that his pension could not be paid because of his religion, but that should he deny being a Baha’i, it might be given him (Ministry of Defense and Support of the Armed Forces to Mr. M., August 30, 1992). Such letters are still being received by Baha’is who, hoping that the situation in the country has improved, request the resumption of payments due to them.

In addition to government employees, self-employed professionals were also frequently prevented from earning a living. Baha’i lawyers were prohibited from practicing their profession. The Board of the Lawyers Association of the Islamic Republic of Iran investigated the case of a Baha’i attorney and decided that “In view of the indictment of Mr. M.H. for membership in the misguided sect of Baha’ism, according to section 4, parts A and B, of article 5 of the law of reform and reorganization of the lawyers association, the aforementioned is permanently barred from practicing law” (Ministry of Justice to Mr. M.H., verdict No. 74/2/31-129, May 21, 1995). Even Baha’i veterinarians were not exempt. Thus the National Veterinary Organization wrote to the Director of the Inspection Group of the Ministry of Agriculture that “according to the confidential letter (#3005 – 24/10/1365) from the Central Security Department, it is in no way possible to issue a [work] permit to Mr. J.F. It should be remembered that according to his request dated 11/8/1367 [November 2, 1988] he has introduced as a religion the wayward Baha’i sect which is the agent of Zionists and the [United] States, and he considers himself a Baha’i” (National Veterinary Organization to the Director of the Inspection Group of the Ministry of Agriculture, October 31, 1989).

No less severe in its consequences has been the policy of excluding Baha’is from institutions of higher learning. Immediately after the revolution all Baha’i faculty were dismissed from Iranian universities. In the late 1980s Baha’i children were allowed in primary and secondary schools, but universities were closed to Baha’i students. This was a particularly heavy blow to a community that placed high value on education. Barring Baha’is from higher education was part of a well thought out plan for the slow strangulation of the Baha’i community. A secret memorandum “on the Baha’i question” was prepared by the Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council in 1991 at the request of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, Ali Khamenei, and the then President of Iran, Hashemi Rafsanjani. The memorandum spelled out, among other things, measures for reducing the educational level of the Baha’i community. Paragraphs 1-3 of Section B read:

They can be enrolled in schools provided they have not identified

themselves as Baha’is. Preferably, they should be enrolled in schools which

have a strong and imposing religious ideology. They must be expelled,

either in the admission process or during the course of their studies, once

it becomes known that they are Baha’is. (Pohl, January 28, 1993)

This policy has been consistently applied and is still in force.

To provide at least some university level education to hundreds of eager men and women, a group of former faculty members in 1987 organized a program of courses in ten subject areas: applied chemistry, biology, dentistry, pharmacology, civil engineering, computer science, psychology, law, literature, and accounting. No Baha’i subjects were taught, thus avoiding the possibility of being accused of fostering the Baha’i religion. (Stockman, 1999, 8) Classes were held in private homes, which also housed books and laboratory equipment. Although the organization of this “open university” was not illegal, participants had to act with caution so as not to draw undue attention and antagonize the authorities. The university, which became known as the Baha’i Institute of Higher Education (BIHE), grew to 900 students and 150 faculty members by 1998. It had established informal connections with universities abroad and maintained such high standards that a number of its alumni and alumnae went to graduate schools in the United States. The BIHE was a unique example of the determination of a repressed community not to permit itself to be deprived of education.

The authorities, of course, were aware of the existence of the BIHE but for a time chose not to interfere with its operations, except on one occasion when the police raided its office and confiscated the records of faculty and students. In September 1998, however, the government acted. Hundreds of agents descended upon 500 homes where BIHE classes were held. They took hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of laboratory equipment, computers, and books. Thirty-six faculty members were arrested. “The materials confiscated,” The New York Times reported on October 29, 1998, “were neither political nor religious, and the people arrested were not fighters or organizers. They were lecturers in subjects like accounting and dentistry; the materials seized were textbooks and laboratory equipment.” Most of the arrested teachers were soon released but four were tried and sentenced to imprisonment. At their police interrogation, Baha’i teachers were accused of disobeying the government ban on Baha’i activity and ordered to sign a pledge that they would not resume teaching. All the teachers refused, arguing that the order itself was illegal for there was no law in Iran prohibiting teaching languages, economics, or any of the subjects that the BIHE offered.

The wide publicity the BIHE case received all over the world inundated the office of the Iranian Minister of Education with thousands of letters of protest from university students, faculty, and administrators (among them the presidents of Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Duke). The government, concerned for its reputation abroad, took no further action and the BIHE quietly resumed its activities, though on a reduced scale. The entire episode once again showed the determination of the Islamic regime to carry out its policy of depriving young Baha’is of education as elaborated in the secret memorandum of 1991.

Of all the measures taken by the Islamic regime against the Baha’is, the cruelest were the murders, executions, and disappearances of well over 200 Baha’is, mostly leaders of the community. The strategy was plain. Destroy the head, and the body will wither and die. Many mullahs and persons with clerical connections, whether in the Hojjatiyeh Society or outside, had not taken into account the lessons of history and believed their own propaganda that the Baha’i Faith was an artificial creation that would collapse at the first blow. No sooner had the Islamic Republic been proclaimed than “groups of Baha’is were dragged into mosques and threatened with starvation if they did not renounce their beliefs and convert to Islam (Martin, 1984, 50-51). Neither persuasion nor threats produced the desired results. In twenty years of relentless persecution of some 400,000 Iranian Baha’is, only a few hundred recanted their faith, and they were largely nominal Baha’is on the margins of their community.

In the summer of 1980, several members of the local spiritual assemblies (the elective governing bodies of Baha’i communities) were executed in Tabriz, Rasht, and Tehran. The representatives of the Baha’i community appealed to President Bani-Sadr for help with the rapidly deteriorating situation but were not successful. On June 21, Bani-Sadr’s own newspaper, Enqelab-e Eslami, published “a violent denunciation of the Baha’i community by a close associate of Khomeini’s, the Ayatollah Sadduqi, in which the latter claimed to possess documents proving that the Baha’is were plotting against the revolution `in every city in Iran.’ Sadduqi called on the faithful to `hunt down the Baha’is whom you know … and turn them over to the revolutionary courts.'” Such inflammatory and sinister statements were made for several years thereafter. Thus in February, 1983, a Shiraz judge, Hojjat-ol-Eslam Qazai, proclaimed:

The Iranian nation has arisen in accordance with Koranic teachings and by

the will of God has determined to establish the government of God on earth.

Therefore, it cannot tolerate the perverted Baha’is who are the instruments

of Satan and followers of the Devil and the super powers and their agents.

It is absolutely certain that in the Islamic Republic of Iran there is no

place whatsoever for Baha’is or Baha’ism. Before it is too late the Baha’is

should recant Baha’ism, which is condemned by reason and logic. Otherwise,

the day will come when the Islamic nation will deal with the Baha’is in

accordance with its religious obligation and will … God willing, fulfil

the prayer of Noah, mentioned in the Qur’an, `and Noah said, Lord, leave

not one single family of infidels on earth’ (Khabar-e Junub, February 22,


On August 21, 1980, all nine members of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Iran were arrested and never heard from again. The Attorney General claimed that they had been involved with the Anglican Church in a CIA financed plot to overthrow the Islamic regime. Subsequently these charges were dropped, and the government declared that it knew nothing of the whereabouts of the members of the National Spiritual Assembly. Months later Ayatollah Beheshti, the then Chief Justice, announced that the accusations of the plot had been “`fabricated’ by `an unbalanced person’ who had forged the key documents. The exposure of this forgery was hailed as a triumph of the system of law under the Islamic Republic. The Anglican detainees were eventually released, but no further reference was made to the Baha’i prisoners” (Martin, 1984, 51).

The government itself engaged in forgery and disinformation in a booklet, Baha’ism: Its Origins and Its Role, distributed at the 36th session (1983) of the UN Sub-Commission on the Protection of Minorities. The booklet repeated the tired allegations that the Baha’i Faith had been created by western imperialists and had served their interests. AS evidence it cited a 1921 telegram of condolence to the Baha’i community from King George V on the passing of the head of the faith, `Abdu’l-Baha. It quoted reports of SAVAK spies, Hojjatiyeh members who had infiltrated the Baha’i community, that prominent Baha’is claimed that the two Pahlavi shahs were Baha’is and that Baha’is had made the first atom bomb. These items were the only evidence provided. Not a single credible document was ever offered to substantiate the outlandish charges. Neither were any incriminating documents linking the Baha’is with espionage or any subversive activity ever produced in the dozens of trials of Baha’is in Iran. Not one document implicating the Baha’is was found in the voluminous State Department and CIA archives that fell into Iranian hands when the US Embassy in Tehran was occupied by militants; although these were published in full by the Iranian government.

Shortly after the disappearance of the members of their National Spiritual Assembly, the Baha’is elected nine new members. Eight of the nine were arrested and executed. One member, who happened to be absent, survived. The Baha’is, for the third time, elected another nine members to the National Spiritual Assembly. All were arrested, some were repeatedly tortured, and four were executed in 1984. By this time the Assembly, in compliance with the order issued by the Prosecutor General, Seyyed Hoseyn Musavi-Tabrizi, had disbanded. It must be noted that the Prosecutor’s statement, made public after the Assembly had been dissolved, declared for the first time that membership in Baha’i administrative institutions was a crime. The same Musavi-Tabrizi had stated earlier that: “`The Qur’an recognizes only the People of the Book as religious communities. Others are pagans. Pagans must be eliminated.’ Under Islamic law in Iran, `People of the Book’ includes only Muslims, Jews, Christians and, by special dispensation, Zoroastrians’ (Baha’i International Community, 1999, 27).

The largest number of executions took place in 1983 and 1984. Of these, the most gruesome was the hanging of ten Baha’i women, among them a seventeen-year old girl, Mona Mahmudnezhad, who was accused of teaching Baha’i children’s classes. As was the usual practice of revolutionary clerical courts, Mona and her nine companions were given the choice of recantation or death. For several days the judge, Hojjat ol-Eslam Qazai, cajoled and threatened the women to recant their faith and embrace Islam. Not one recanted, and all ten were hanged (Roohizadegan, 1883). In many cases executions were preceded by torture. Photographs of mutilated bodies are a gruesome testimony to the treatment scores of Baha’is received at the hands of Iranian judicial authorities.

Judicial decisions continued to be made and documents published, reaffirming that killing a Baha’i was not a criminal act. Thus in 1993 Chief Magistrate Seyyed Mohammad Ghazavi of Branch 4 of the Criminal Court of Shahr-e Rey ruled that the two brothers who had been accused of kidnapping and murder of a Baha’i, Ruhollah Ghedami, had indeed committed these acts. However, considering the “pronouncements of Khomeini and other theologians to the effect that qisas (blood retribution) applies only to the murder of a Muslim, the court ruled:

In this case, the victim, as admitted by all the blood relatives and

plaintiffs and residents of the neighborhood, was a member of the misguided

and misguiding Baha’i sect. Therefore the issue of retribution is null and

void. And the right of `blood money’ [damages] does not apply. No money is

due to other than protected infidels, etc. Therefore, as to capital

punishment and damages, the accused are acquitted (Kazemzadeh, 1995, 12).

A few days later a court in Karaj found two Baha’is, Behnam Misaqi and Keyvan Khalajabadi, guilty of communicating with the Baha’i World Center, holding meetings in their homes, and engaging in other Baha’i activities.

The court quoted Ayatollah Khomeini’s pronouncement to the effect that Baha’is were agents serving Western powers, which had for centuries been planning to destroy Islam `by inventing fake religions such as Babism, Baha’ism, and Wahhabism,’ and in the case of Baha’is `the privileges of the people of Dhimma [protected infidels] do not apply.’ The court held that,

Thus, due to the religious laws and theological codes mentioned above, the

above cannot be considered among the Kuffar-i-Dhimmi and therefore the

court condemns them to death as Kuffar-i Harbi [unprotected infidels at war

with Islam] (Kazemzadeh, 1995, 13).

It might also be noted that the same judicial reasoning could be applied to Hindus, Buddhists, and, certainly, to atheists.

In 1980 a total of 24 Baha’is were killed, by methods as severe as stoning and burning. In 1981 the number doubled. Thirty-two more Baha’is were put to death in 1982, and one woman was lynched by a mob. In 1983, twenty-nine people were killed. In 1984, thirty. Executions decreased dramatically in 1985 and 1986 when seven Baha’is were put to death. Five more were killed in 1987, and three more in 1988. In the next three years there were no executions, but in 1992 two more Baha’is were killed. None were killed in 1993-94, but one person died in 1995. In 1996 there were no deaths, but three were killed in 1997, and one in 1998. (Baha’i International Community, 1999, 68-71.) Although the killings subsided, several Baha’is were condemned to death in 1999 and are awaiting execution.

Within Iran, the mullahs, public statements, and press did not hesitate to proclaim that Baha’is were outlaws deserving of death, and government offices in thousands of instances officially stated that Baha’is were dismissed from their jobs strictly on the basis of religion. Outside, however, Iranian representatives abroad consistently denied that this was the case. At the United Nations they have fought against the mention of Baha’is in resolutions on human rights in Iran, claiming that no person was ever tried, imprisoned, or executed because of his or her beliefs. Iranian diplomats cited the Iranian Constitution’s articles on religious freedom but persisted in denying that the Baha’i Faith was a religion, calling it a political subversive organization. In the capitals of countries whose governments protested against the persecution, Iranian diplomats took the same position. Replying to an inquiry by Bundestag member Ruprecht Polenz concerning the fate of three condemned Baha’is, T. Shemirani, Counselor and Head of the Legal Section of the Iranian Embassy in Bonn, wrote that in the Islamic Republic, no one is detained or convicted because of his or her beliefs.

The freedom of belief including freedom to adopt the religion of one’s

personal choice has been recognized in the constitution, and no attacks on

other faiths in the name of religion is [sic.] authorized. The fact of

belonging to the Baha’i community does not entail loss of rights to which

every Iranian citizen is entitled.

Shemirani further states that:

being a Bahai in itself is not considered an offense and nobody is

deprived of his rights for holding a belief … Furthermore, in the

criminal law of the Islamic Republic there is no reference of apostasy

as a crime.

Shemirani continues:

In addition to Baha’is, followers of other beliefs as Hindus, Buddhists,

Sabe’iins and Yazidis are living freely in the country. Even communists

who deny existence of the god and consider religion as sedative and

stupefying of societies [sic] are leading their normal life in the

Islamic Republic of Iran.

To make sure that his words were not interpreted as recognizing the Baha’i Faith as a religion, Shemirani adds:

Furthermore, not only have none [sic] of the 53 Islamic countries in the

world recognized Baha’ism as a religion, but also the Jurisprudence

Committee of the Organization of Islamic countries (OIC) has decisively

rejected Baha’ism even as a sect of Islam (Shemirani, February 4, 1997).

The claim that Baha’is were free to practice their religion and suffered no discrimination is belied by a remarkable document, the memorandum on “the Baha’i Question” prepared by the Iranian Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council at the request of the “Esteemed Leader” (Khamenei) and the President (Rafsanjani). The memorandum conveyed to Khamenei by the head of his office, Dr. Seyyed Mohammad Golpaygani, made proposals and recommendations concerning the treatment of the Baha’is “in such a way that everyone will understand what should or should not be done.” The “Summary of the Results of the Discussions and Recommendation” of the Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council mentioned that Baha’is should not be expelled from the country, arrested, imprisoned or penalized “without reason” but nowhere indicates what the reasons for expelling, arresting, or otherwise penalizing them could be. Article 3 of paragraph A stated, “the Government’s dealing with them must be in such a way that their progress and development be blocked.” Articles 13 of paragraph B, which have been mentioned above, dealt with the exclusion of Baha’is from institutions of higher learning. Article 5 called for Islamic propaganda institutions “to counter the propaganda and religious activities of the Baha’is.” Article 6 stated that “a plan must be devised to confront and destroy their cultural roots outside the country.” Paragraph C dealt with the legal and social status of the Baha’is. They were to be allowed to make “a modest livelihood,” to have ration booklets, passports, burial certificates, and work permits, although in fact many Baha’is had been and are still denied some or all of these. Article 3 of paragraph C proposed to “deny them employment if they identify themselves as Baha’is.” Article 4 said, “deny them any position of influence such as in the educational sector, etc.”

The document bore a note in Khamenei’s handwriting: “In the name of God! The decision of the Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council seems sufficient. I thank you gentlemen for your attention and efforts. Ali Khamenei” (Pohl, 1993). Since its publication, the situation of individual Baha’is in Iran has somewhat improved Officials have arbitrarily issued passports for foreign travel to some Baha’is, and refused them to others. The number of Baha’is in prisons has been reduced to twelve, and five of them are on death row as of March 2000. But the restrictions listed in the memorandum that has been named “A Blueprint for the Destruction of a Religious Community” are still in force. Thus one must assume that the Blueprint continues to be normative for all government institutions that come into contact with the Baha’is.

Because they have no clergy, the Baha’is support their religious life with institutions known as spiritual assemblies. These are both local and national and are democratically elected annually by all believers twenty-one years of age or older. Spiritual assemblies enroll new members, educate children, register marriages, maintain charitable funds, publish Baha’i literature where allowed by law, adjudicate disputes, and administer all Baha’i activities on the local or national levels. They were established by the founder of the faith, Baha’u’llah, and their functions are indispensable for the proper governance of any Baha’i community. By a decree of the Prosecutor General of the Islamic Revolution, published on September 21, 1983 in Keyhan, a Tehran daily, all spiritual assemblies and their ancillary institutions were banned and membership in them made criminal. In a document whose eloquence was heightened by the tragic fate of its authors, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Iran refuted every allegation made against the community, explained the nature of its beliefs and the activities of Baha’i institutions, demonstrated that the Prosecutor’s decree had no basis in law, and recited the harrowing tale of murders, executions, and oppression to which the Baha’is had been subjected in the preceding four years.

Although the situation was hopeless, the statement concluded with the expression of hope that the authorities, who knew “that the only `crime’ of which these innocent ones are guilty is that of their beliefs”, would “bring to an end the persecutions, arrests, torture, and imprisonment of Baha’is;” “guarantee the safety of their lives, their personal property and belongings, and their honor;” “accord them freedom to choose their residence and association … restore all the rights which have been taken away from them in accordance with the groundless assertions of the Prosecutor of the Country.” The statement further asked that Baha’is be given back their jobs, be permitted to resume their education, have their cemeteries returned to them, and

… guarantee the freedom of Baha’is to perform their religious rites; to

conduct funerals and burials including the recitation of the Prayer for the

Dead; to solemnize Baha’i marriages and divorces, and to carry out all acts

of worship and laws and ordinances affecting personal status; because

although Baha’is are entirely obedient and subordinate to the Government in

the administration of the affairs which are in the jurisdiction of Baha’i

organizations, in matters of conscience and belief, and in accordance with

their spiritual principles, they prefer martyrdom to recantation or the

abandoning of divine ordinances prescribed by their faith.

The Assembly concluded by saying that “although the order of the Prosecutor of the Islamic Revolution was unjust and unfair,” the Baha’is have accepted it. With this the Assembly dissolved itself and all other elected Baha’i institutions. (Martin, 1984, 82-86) From then on the Baha’is have run their community in an informal manner with groups of individuals assuming responsibilities such as the organization of the Baha’i Institute of Higher Education.

The election of Hojjat-ol-Eslam Mohammad Khatami to the presidency and the subsequent relaxation of the clerical dictatorship have not radically altered the situation of the Baha’is in Iran. While the treatment of individual Baha’is has to some extent improved, there has been no change in the status of the community. In the last two years Baha’is have been granted passports for travel abroad much more easily than had been the case since the early 1980s. In many instances, they have been issued business licenses that were previously denied to them. Perhaps the most significant silent concession to the Baha’is has been the recent modification in the rules for the registration of marriages that omits references to religion, thus making it possible to register Baha’i marriages and legitimize their children. It is noteworthy, however, that no reformist within Iran has dared mention the need of granting the Baha’is their rights as citizens and human beings. Even in the diaspora most Iranians studiously avoid any discussion of the “Baha’i question,” although a number of Iranian intellectuals have occasionally championed the rights of the Baha’is.

Provoked by the rhetoric of reform that stresses democracy and the will of the people, the hard-liners among the clergy denounced those who placed the will of the people above the judgment of the clergy. In an address to students at a theological seminary in Qom, the prominent cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi made the views of his fellow extremists clear.

In rejecting the slogan `Iran belongs to all Iranians,’ a phrase which is in the minds of some who consider the Islamic Revolution as a means to fulfill the wishes of society, [Ayatollah Yazdi] stated:

… Is it for people to set forth their wishes, even though these are

contrary to Islam? [Does it mean] Iran belongs to all Iranians and everyone

is equal? Does it mean that a Baha’i is equal with a religious authority [a

mullah] ? Today they are trying to recognize the Baha’is with the slogan

`Iran belongs to all Iranians.’ Is not a Baha’i considered an Iranian?

Don’t we have first and second class citizens? Are people considered equal

and, therefore, the citizens should also be considered equal and of the

same rank? Does it mean that a Baha’i can become a president because he is

a human being and an Iranian? Are these considered human rights? Are we

defending these kinds of human rights? Is this the purpose of our

Revolution? (Arya newspaper, Tehran, reprinted in Keyhan–London

edition–No. 794, February 10, 2000)

The Ayatollah called for harsh treatment of those who violate Islamic standards set by the clergy, and justified violence against those who do not conform to such standards. In an atmosphere of confrontation between the proponents of change and reform and the conservative defenders of the order established by the Islamic revolution, violence is an ever-present danger. The Baha’is may very well become victims of such violence, considering how they have historically been used as scapegoats.

Deprived of its institutions, denied access to higher education, subjected to all forms of discrimination, reduced to the status of “unprotected infidels at war with Islam,” and having lost over 30,000 believers through emigration, the Baha’i community of Iran survives. Its spiritual strength, the pressure of international public opinion, the actions of the United Nations, protests of governments, and, last but not least, the sympathy of a large number of Iranians, have made it impossible for the extremists to carry out their plans for the eradication of the Baha’i community.

Firuz Kazemzadeh, board member and former president of the World Federation of Baha’i, is Professor Emeritus at Yale University. He is the author of “Central Asia’s Foreign Relations: An Historical Survey” in The Legacy of History in Russia and the New States of Eurasia (1994)

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