Baha’is are facing “increasing insecurity” in Iran and other countries in the Middle East, according to a new report by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed. Some 300,000 Baha’is reportedly reside in the Islamic Republic. They are the largest non-Muslim religious minority but have long faced discrimination based on their faith, especially in trying to access education and employment, according to the report. They have also been subject to “smear campaigns and speech that may incite violence against them based on their faith identity.”
The Islamic Republic considers the Baha’is members of a heretical sect. Iran’s population is predominantly Shiite Muslim, and Shiism is the official religion of the state. Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism are the only recognized religions.
After the 1979 revolution, the regime systematically targeted leaders of the Baha’i community, some of whom had worked for the monarchy. In 1983, the regime banned the group’s governing bodies, the Local and National Spiritual Assemblies, and executed senior leaders. Many prominent Baha’is were arrested on charges of espionage and other national security violations. The following is an excerpt from the U.N. report’s annex on the Baha’i population in Iran.
Islamic Republic of Iran
In Iran, discrimination against and persecution of Baha'is is State-driven and systematic. The Government has targeted numerous aspects of the lives of the Baha'i as part of their official policy. An Iran Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council memorandum, entitled "The Bahá'í Question,"has set out specific guidelines for Baha'i matters. It states that "[t]he government's dealings with [Baha'is] must be in such a way that their progress and development are blocked" and outlines measures to restrict their social, economic, and cultural life. Interlocutors have reported that the memorandum is still in effect today, adversely affecting the Baha'i community. Iran's Constitution also enshrines the exclusion of Baha'is. Although Iran's Constitution ostensibly guarantees freedom of religion for all citizens (Article 14), in practice, it only protects persons belonging to the four religions officially recognized in that same instrument: Islam, as the State religion (Article 12) and Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism as minority religions (Article 13). Lacking legal recognition, the Baha'i and other religious minorities reportedly have experienced violence and restrictions on manifesting their faith, often when they are seen as contracting Islamic principles. Finally, although the Constitution provides some protection against discrimination (Articles 19 and 20), it does not recognize religion as a protected ground. It is worth recalling that, under international human rights law, the existence of a religious minority is not dependent upon the decision of the State.
Activities of Baha'i in manifesting their faith are criminalized. For members of the Baha'i community and other minority religions not recognized in Iran's Constitution, many manifestations of their religion are reportedly outlawed or surveilled. Symposium participants claim that the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance has monitored Baha'i places of worship or other public gatherings. Recent amendments to Iran's Penal Code may further erode freedom of religion or belief, as the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran ("Special Rapporteur on Iran") has previously warned. Article 499 bis of the Penal Code now states that anyone "with intent to cause violence or tension" in society or who "insults divine religions or branches of Islam, as stipulated by the Constitution" may be prosecuted. Article 500 bis now state that a person may be prosecuted if they are perceived to engage in "any deviant educational or propaganda activity that contradicts or interferes with the sacred religion of Islam in many ways such as making false or delusional claims in religious and Islamic domains." These changes to the law could, in effect, criminalize the expression of the Baha'i belief, where the authorities consider it contrary to Islamic precepts and principles. Interlocutors report that this legislation may affect Baha'is religious education and criminalize mere declaration of one's religion as Baha'i, even in response to questions arising in administrative and civil processes. The sweeping, vague terminology of the law grants extensive interpretive discretion to law enforcement and judicial authorities, which could be fertile ground for arbitrary arrest, detention, and imprisonment based on one's faith identity, incidents of which Symposium participants allege are increasing.
The consequences of the lack of legal recognition of the Baha'i community in Iran are far-reaching. They include loss of custody in divorce proceedings, children being "born out of wedlock" because Baha'i marriages are not recognized, and disregard to contents of wills or Baha'i inheritance laws in disputed estate matters. While recognizing personal status laws may mitigate discrimination against specific faith communities, it is also essential to recall that personal status law that is rooted in religious precepts - whether of a majority or minority faith - have also been used in certain countries to discriminate against individuals within faith communities, including based on gender.
Baha'is have been subject to smear campaigns and speech that may incite violence against them based on their faith identity. In Iran, it is reported that both State and non-State actors have vilified the Baha'i faith, often characterizing the religion as a conspiracy devised by enemies of Islam and the Government. Influential figures, including clerics, religious figures, academics, editors, and government representatives, have publicly issued speeches, articles, or written declarations against the Baha'is, to delegitimize and denigrate the community.
Members of the Baha'i community have reportedly experienced discrimination based on their faith identity in trying to access education and employment. In 2006, the Iranian Central Security Office of the Ministry of Science, Research and Technology allegedly communicated to 81 Iranian universities, instructing them to expel any student who was found to be Baha'i at the time of enrolment or during enrolment in their studies. Interlocutors report that the Iranian Government's efforts to deprive higher education have extended to closing the ad hoc institute created for Baha'i youth, which primarily draws on the volunteer services of Baha'i professors and lecturers who themselves were dismissed from their university posts. The Iranian Government has reportedly banned Baha'is from public sector jobs, including in education, health care, or government institutions, with only the private sector available to them. Even in the private sector, the Baha’i International Community (“BIC”) reports that Baha'i-owned businesses are "sealed" (indefinitely forcibly closed) when their owners cease to work in observance of Baha'i holy days or their properties, such as farmland, are confiscated. Some Muslim-owned businesses in the private sector are allegedly pressured to fire their Baha'i employees.
Interlocutors report that the desecration and destruction of Baha'i cemeteries in Iran are not only acts of vandalism but also are a means to strip the Baha'i community of a source of minority cultural, religious identity and to erase traces of their past. At the same time, Iranian authorities have often denied Baha'i access to existing and new burial sites and thus blatantly deny their right to bury deceased community members in a dignified manner, per the tenets of their faith.
Photo Credits: UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)