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Hate and Love: Responses to the Baha’is of Iran

A Plea for Justice, However Delayed

by Aleda Nelson

Aleda Nelson is a board member of the Interfaith Council of Southern Nevada. A long-time interfaith activist, she is the founder and chair of the annual Interfaith Forum series What We Believe, A Step Toward Mutual Understanding, sponsored by the Interfaith Council of Southern Nevada and now in its 26th season. Between 1979 and 1985 she served as executive director for the Southern Nevada Chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews; in 1981 she coordinated Southern Nevada’s first NCCJ interfaith, interracial leadership youth program, called “Anytown, Nevada.” She has a degree in psychology from Antioch University and has been in private business since 1988. Ms. Nelson is a member of the Baha’i faith.

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The 350,000 peace loving and non-violent Baha’is of Iran are on the Genocide Watch Alliance’s “watch list.” The status is declared when early warning signs indicate the danger of genocide. Though the Iranian government insists all religions are free to practice, the Baha’is, who are the largest religious minority in Iran, are anything but free. And so it has been since 1844, when their religion came into being.

Cast as a Scapegoat

A typical diverting strategy used when governments face economic or political challenge has been to draw attention to and blame the “other,” those outside the culture’s mainstream, for civil society’s problems. As gypsies, Jews, and others served as scapegoats for the Nazis, over the ages “others” have been convenient diversions.

In Iran the Baha’is have been labeled supporters of the West and agents of Zionism; political insurgents bent on destroying the government, and responsible for the country's difficulties. Clerical and media campaigns comprising speech and political policies created to confine Baha'is serve to distract the population from the real issues at hand.

Increasing Violence against Iranian Baha’is

This holy Baha’i site in Babol, Iran, was destroyed in 2004.

This holy Baha’i site in Babol, Iran, was destroyed in 2004.

On March 6, 2013, the Baha’i International Community issued a report titled “Violence with Impunity: Acts of aggression against Iran’s Baha’i community.” It provides case studies of incidents between 2005 and 2012. Included are 52 cases of torture or solitary confinement while in detention, 52 additional cases of physical assault, 49 acts of arson, 42 incidents of cemetery desecration, 30 cases of vandalism, 200 instances of threats against Baha’i individuals and over 300 incidents of abuse directed against Baha’i school children.

According to Diane Ala’i, the Baha’i International Community’s representative to the United Nations in Geneva, the study reveals that “attacks on Baha’is are engineered by government agents and actively encouraged by the authorities and the Muslim clergy in Iran – andG attackers are well aware that they will go unpunished.” “In all cases,” she said, “these violators need to be brought to justice, as is required by the international laws to which Iran is a party. The government’s unwillingness to prosecute these crimes is yet another element in their overall campaign of religious persecution against the Baha’i minority.”

One genocide watch list uses a scale of 1 to 8 in their monitoring. The situation of the Iranian Baha’is is now at stage 5 on the “1 to 8” scale. Stage 8 is “denial,” the period following the killing when perpetrators deny the genocide occurred.

The 2009 – 2011 Media Campaign

In the October 2011 report titled “Inciting Hatred: Iran’s media campaign to demonize the Baha’is,” the Baha’i International Community documented a relentless 16-month media hate campaign waged by the Iranian government from 2009 through 2011. The report documented 400 articles, broadcasts, or Web pages falsely portraying the Baha’is as the source of every evil. The Baha’is were accused of being agents of imperialist or colonialist factions. Allegations of immorality were raised, and they were branded as social pariahs that should be shunned. The campaign’s sophistication, organization, level of vehemence, volume and scope are calculated to isolate Baha’is, shun them and cast them as “the other.”

Educational Deprivation

Baha’u’llah said, “Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom.”

If His words are taken to heart, then in being deprived of an education an individual is stifled in their efforts to unlock the potential latent in his or her being. The individual, the family and the community are all denied when the flowering of capacity is stymied.

Baha’i youth are prevented from entering university. If identified as Baha’is, they are expelled. Baha’i children are harassed by their elementary teachers.  The systematically imposed persecution visited upon the Iranian Baha’is by the their government also includes torture and execution, barring from public employment, not recognizing their marriages, considering their children bastards, confiscating their property and wealth. Their holy sites and cemeteries are razed to the ground, and they are imprisoned solely for their religious beliefs. Of all that and more, being barred from an education may, in the long view, be the most cruel.

Heroic efforts to self educate with dedicated Muslim and Baha’i professors and Baha’i students have been brought to a halt when a private Baha’i institute for higher learning was raided. Computers and books were confiscated and a number of the professors were imprisoned.

The international educational community, including many of the world’s most prestigious universities, is joining the Education Under Fire campaign. The campaign is rallying students and university educators to condemn and pressure the Iranian government to permit Baha’i youth to attend university. Among those in the government to whom the demands were directed was its President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The “Five Years Too Many” Campaign

Six of Iran’s seven Baha’i leaders were sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2008.

Six of Iran’s seven Baha’i leaders were sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2008.

Six of Iran’s seven Baha’i leaders were sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2008.The numbers of Baha’is imprisoned has grown sharply in the past few years. In response, a campaign called Five Years Too Many has focused on a group who symbolize the persecution of Iranian Baha’is. The campaign has led to a global outpouring of support for the seven Iranian Baha’i leaders and other prisoners of conscience in Iran. The campaign marked May 14 as the fifth anniversary of the arrest of six of the seven Baha’i leaders during a series of early morning raids in Tehran. The seven were eventually sentenced to 20 years imprisonment, the longest of any current prisoners of conscience in Iran. In an example of support, the vice president of the national Muslim Council in South Africa, Shaykh Achmat Sedick, used a May 15 campaign event to talk about freedom of religion from an Islamic perspective and stated that Iran’s persecution of the Baha’i Community is “entirely unjust.”

United States Senate and House of Representatives

The U.S. Senate is currently working on Senate Resolution 75 condemning the state sponsored persecution of the Iranian Baha’is and other Iranian prisoners of conscience. Containing similar content, the U.S. House of Representatives has introduced House Resolution 109. These resolutions have also been presented in, and passed by the Senate and House of Representatives in previous years. While the Baha’i community remains the target of systematized persecution, their efforts, like those of other international governments, the United Nations and groups like Amnesty International are among the worldwide pressure credited with containing the suffering. Without the international pressure the situation would be much worse.

Support within Iran

There are many Iranian citizens, angered and perplexed by the persecution of the Baha’is, who have come to their defense: students who staged a school walk-out when a fellow Baha’i student was expelled; neighbors who gather round and come to the aid of an arson victim and those who put themselves at risk to quell an angry crowd; the 243 intellectuals who signed a widely publicized open letter titled “We Are Ashamed,” describing in depth their shame for standing by and for 150 years of silence while Baha’is suffered.

Perhaps most unexpected by perpetrators are stories of individuals who, inspired by the fortitude and patience of their fellow Baha’i citizens, have begun investigating the Baha’i faith for themselves. Anecdotal reports suggest that while illegal and anathema to their own well-being, there are those who have silently embraced the formally maligned teachings of Baha’u’llah.

Only the ongoing worldwide condemnation of their treatment keeps the Iranian Baha’is from being swallowed whole by prisons, from being victims of hate-incited violence, and from disappearance. Please visit the websites linked above to assist in promoting justice and freedom of education for the Iranian Baha’is.

A longer version of this paper can be found on the Interfaith Council of Southern Nevada’s website.