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The Baha'is of Iran

On the night of June 18th, 1983, the Islamic revolutionary authorities in Shiraz, Iran, hanged ten women and teenage girls for refusal to deny their belief in the Baha'i Faith. For three days before their deaths the victims had endured barbarous treatment at the hands of Shi'ih Muslim clergymen and revolutionary guards who, on June 15th, had similarly executed the husbands, father and son of four of them. These new deaths brought to 160 the number of Baha'is in Iran who have been shot or hanged by the Islamic regime. The great majority of the persons executed have been members of the elected local and national governing bodies of the Baha'i community, the Spiritual Assemblies. The other victims were principally persons who held high rank in the teaching institutions of the Faith or who were otherwise prominent in its service. Tens of thousands of Iranian Baha'is have lost homes, jobs, pensions, savings and businesses, have seen their shrines and cemeteries desecrated, and their children driven from school. The entire community, over 300,000 persons, the largest religious minority in Iran, live as pariahs in their own country.

Initially, it was assumed that these outrages were an integral part of the political upheaval which was occurring. It is now generally recognized that political developments in Iran have little or no relevance to the subject. Independent forums such as the United Nations Human Rights Commission, the national legislatures of several states, the European Parliament, and Amnesty International, as well as some of the most respected figures in the journalistic world, have repeatedly charged that the attacks on the Iranian Baha'is represent nothing other than a systematic campaign of religious persecution.

Nor is the persecution a recent phenomenon. Virtually from the moment of its inception in mid-nineteenth century Iran, this religion has been the object of intense hostility by the Shi'ih Muslim clergy and the target of successive waves of attacks against its membership. One of the two founders of the Faith, known to his followers as the Bab (the "Door" or "Gate"), was executed in 1850 at the urging of Shi'ih clerics, and some 20,000 of the early believers perished in massacres also incited by the latter. Over the next seventy years the Baha'i community intermittently experienced persecution of one kind or another; a proscribed minority, it survived only by keeping a very low profile, and by adhering strictly to the Baha'i principle of not engaging in partisan political activity. The Baha'i Faith began in 1844 with the announcement of the Bab that his mission was to prepare the way for the Messenger of God for this age. Baha'is believe that Baha'u'llah, who announced his own mission in 1863, was that Messenger. It was Baha'u'llah who elaborated the teachings of the Faith and founded the Baha'i community.

The mainspring of the hostility to the Baha'i minority has been the Islamic clergy's rejection of the idea that there could be a revelation from God after that of Muhammad, who is regarded by them as "the last of the Prophets." This theological objection is immeasurably strengthened by ecclesiastical fear of the Baha'i social teachings. Essentially, the new Faith teaches that humanity has entered the age of its unification, and that the principal concern of religion must be to establish unity and overcome differences of race, creed, language and nation. The Baha'i writings place great importance on such goals as the establishment of equality between the sexes, the encouragement of universal education, with particular emphasis on the sciences, and support for international and non-partisan agencies that will contribute to the eventual establishment of a world government. Such concepts were anathema to the Shi'ih establishment in the nineteenth century, and are equally repugnant to their modern-day successors.

With the rise of the Pahlavis in 1925, there was hope that an era of religious tolerance might at last have arrived in Iran. This hope was quickly extinguished. It is difficult to remember today, as the Shi'ih clergy engage in an orgy of destruction of every vestige of the Pahlavi regime, that mullahs were among the principal allies of both Reza Shah and his son, Muhammad Reza Shah, during critical periods of their respective reigns. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine the Pahlavis seizing and maintaining control of Iran for fifty-five years without the implicit and sometimes vigorously explicit support of the Shi'ih hierarchy. Partly in order to appease the mullahs and partly to serve the needs of the quasi-totalitarian state they were building, the two Pahlavi shahs systematized the suppression of the Baha'is through a program of discriminatory legislation, physical violence, and economic exploitation.

Once the present revolutionary regime seized power, the Shi'ih clergy undertook to rid Iran of every trace of the Baha'i religion. Squads of gunmen descended on Baha'i national headquarters in Tehran and began a careful study of the files and membership lists. At the same time, a virulent campaign of anti-Baha'i propaganda was undertaken in the form of denunciations from pulpits, articles in the press, and graffiti. Baha'is were denounced as "heretics," "enemies- of Islam," "corrupt on earth," and (a charge of breath-taking audacity in view of the source) "collaborators with the Shah's regime." The effect was to unleash waves of attacks on the Baha'is and their property throughout the country. Members of the Faith were beaten up and in several instances killed, many business were confiscated or destroyed, hundreds of houses burned, and efforts made to force believers to recant their Faith.

Neither the Bazargan nor Bani Sadr regime made any attempt to protect the victims of these attacks. On the contrary, both lent their support to the seizure of Baha'i properties and to efforts to mislead Western governments and media. Mr. Bani Sadr's own newspaper, Inqilab Islami, published in its edition of June 21, 1980, the text of a violent denunciation of the Baha'i community by a close associate of Mr. Khomeini, the Ayatollah Sadduqi, which incited the first series of executions in Tehran, Tabriz, Yazd and Hamadan (Eric Rouleau, Le Monde. 6/24/80]. In August, the entire membership of the National Spiritual Assembly, the governing body of the Baha'i Faith in Iran, were arrested on a warrant from the Attorney General, and then vanished from sight. The government subsequently denied any knowledge of either the arrests or the whereabouts of the prisoners.

With the assumption of complete political power by the Shi'ih clergy in June of 1981, the situation of the Baha'i minority became desperate. Already, during the Bani Sadr period, they had been explicitly excluded from the new Islamic Constitution which, like the previous imperial one, made civil rights totally dependent on membership in one of the four "recognized religions" (i.e., Islam and the three smaller "tolerated faiths," Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism). Now, horrors multiplied daily: Villagers in Nuk were drenched in kerosene, set afire, and forced to run through their own fields until they fell dying; Baha'i girls were kidnapped from their families, raped, and forced to marry Muslims; graves were broken open and the bodies of highly respected believers dragged through the streets to be burned on garbage heaps; Baha'is were declared by mullahs to be "sub-human," and bridled like donkeys, were led through the streets, chained in stables and fed on grass; the widows of men who were executed were compelled to pay the price of the bullets which had killed their husbands; and appalling tortures were practiced on prisoners in the unending attempt to force them to recant their Faith. Baha'is had become social outcasts with no recourse against whatever abuse the ill-disposed chose to visit upon them. Baha'i marriages, regardless of duration, were declared dissolved, Baha'i family life was deemed prostitution (itself punishable by death), and Baha'i children were judged illegitimate and their parents denied any right to them in civil law. The "Law of Retaliation" seeks to restore the full corpus of medieval Islamic law with different schedules of rights and penalties for Muslims and members of the three "tolerated minorities" (i.e., Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians). Other persons ("infidels") have no recourse to civil protection.

To the outsider, it no doubt seems that Iran has fallen to paranoid fanatics, blind perhaps even to their own best interests. The evidence is persuasive, however, that the group of ecclesiastics who control the levers of political power in Iran, although bent on pursuing their savage experiment, retain a keen appreciation of practical necessities. The economic, political, and military storms beating upon them have their own imperatives. Appreciating these circumstances, the international Baha'i community has intensified its efforts to bring the suffering of the Iranian Baha'is before the nations of the world and to generate international pressure on the regime. National Baha'i communities in 135 sovereign states act in concert through an international agency, The Baha'i International Community in New York City, which has consultative status as one of ECOSOC's Non-Governmental Organizations.

The early results give some cause for hope. On February 24th, 1982, the United Nations Human Rights Commission took up the issue of Iranian Baha'is. Representatives from half a dozen nations expressed the view that the situation had become "perilous" and underlined the view of the sub-commission that the persecution is "motivated by religious intolerance and by a desire to eliminate the Baha'i Faith from the land of its birth." When the resulting resolution failed to elicit a positive response from Iran, the next session of the Commission (March 1983) passed a further resolution which gave the Secretary General a mandate to investigate, and called on the Iranian government to cooperate.

As international protest mounted, the Shi'ih hierarchy sought refuge in concealment. References to the Baha'i membership of victims vanished from official government news releases, to be replaced by various euphemistic, but universally understood phrases, "that depraved sect," "infidels," etc. When, in December of 1981 the clergy laid hands on eight of the nine members of the National Baha'i Assembly (who had replaced those kidnapped and presumably murdered in August of 1980), they were apparently induced to kill their victims in secrecy. The eight were shot in the cellars of Evin Prison on the night of December 27, without even the usual formality of a summary trial before an Islamic revolutionary tribunal. The bodies were buried under cover of dark in a plot of barren land set aside as a "graveyard of the infidels." The bodies were discovered fortuitously, however, and news of the executions was carried by Agence France Presse and Renters wire services.

Apparently confident that no evidence supporting the story existed, the Chief Justice of Iran, the Ayatollah Moussavi-Ardibili, called a press conference on January 3, 1982, attended by Western as well as Iranian journalists, at which he denied categorically that the executions had taken place. He pictured the charge as an effort by Baha'is to tarnish the integrity of the Islamic revolution. Three days later, he was compelled to issue a second statement when the Baha'i International Community produced photostatic copies of the death certificates signed by the regime's own prison doctors. Forced to make a humiliating retreat, the Chief Justice stated that the Baha'is had been killed as "Zionist spies," although obviously no trial on such charges had taken place. The shabby sequence illustrates the dilemma which the regime faces in its efforts to steer a course between meeting the minimal demands for acceptance by the international community and its desire to purge Iran of any influence which does not reflect its own dark vision of human society.

It is obvious, however, that much greater international pressure is going to be required if a tragedy of appalling dimensions is to be prevented. The Islamic judge who sent the 10 Baha'i women and girls to their death on June 18th, Hujjat'ul Islam Qazai, warned in the government-controlled newspaper Khabar-i-Junub: "Before it is too late the Baha'is must recant Baha'ism (sic)...Otherwise, the day is soon coming when the Islamic Nation will, God willing,...fulfill the prayer mentioned in the Koran: 'Lord, leave not on earth a single family of infidels'."

Khabar-i-Junub, Feb. 22, 1983: Twenty-two Baha'i death sentences were passed in February, but, in order to exert maximum psychological pressure on the victims, the authorities did not reveal which of the nearly one hundred Baha'is imprisoned in Shiraz were to die. As each month passed one or two of the prisoners would occasionally be hanged without notice. The final series of executions were timed for the month of Ramadan, the period of the Muslim fast.

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