Not a bunch of spies, just a devout religious people

The Baha'is believe in 'the oneness of mankind' and the validity of all faiths. Nicholas Bethell explains why Iran persecutes them nonetheless
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The Independent Online
"They are not a religion," said the Iranian official angrily. "They are an international spy organisation. They were started by Britain to maintain British control over Iran. Now they are run by the Americans and the Israelis. Under the Shah they were a privileged group and they served in the secret police."

I was in Iran with two former European Parliament colleagues, Bryan Cassidy and Edward McMillian Scott, and we were talking about the Baha'i community. This is the most disliked and persecuted group in Iran. No one in the Islamic administration has a good word to say about them. Article 13 of the constitution admits the rights of the Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian minorities, but the Baha'is are not mentioned, either in the constitution or, more importantly, in the Koran. They therefore should not exist.

They get no help from the legal minority groups. At a meeting we had with the members of the Iranian parliament who represent these groups, the Christians and Jews were against giving the Baha'is any rights at all.

In the aftermath of the Islamic revolution, in 1980, 212 Baha'is were executed on charges of treason, murder, espionage and theft. They were accused of making war on God and of corrupting the earth. Thousands were arrested. Thousands left the country or fled across its borders. Of the 6,500 Baha'is in Britain, 3,000 are refugees from Iran.

Near Tehran I met three of the leaders of the Baha'i faith in Iran. They were running a risk, they told us, in even meeting foreigners, let alone complaining to us about their problems. And the picture they painted was indeed a dismal one.

They told us that the cruder acts of persecution are less than they were in the immediate post-Revolution years. No Baha'i has been executed these past four years. Only eight are now in prison. But a whole range of subtler restrictions and punishments has been built up around the 300,000-strong community, with the clear aim of undermining its very existence in the long term and rendering it impotent meanwhile.

The Baha'i places of worship have all been confiscated, including many cemeteries. Baha'is may worship only on private premises, in groups of 15 or less. Baha'is cannoy receive higher education or enter the government service. Even private employers are discouraged from taking them on and are harassed if they do accept them. Recently the head of the Iranian judiciary, Ayatollah Yazdi, announced that the Baha'is are an international espionage group. Iranian officials heard the judgement and are acting on it.

The Baha'is, who used to be a highly educated community, now take manual or low-paid clerical jobs, and they have the added financial burden of having to support the large number of their co-religionists who are unemployed and destitute. Their private property is constantly at risk. It is treated virtually as fair game, since Islamic courts will seldom find in favour of a Baha'i litigant.

Passports are granted to Baha'is only with great difficulty and after heavy and humiliating questioning. Baha'i marriages are often not recognised by the state, which in theory leaves the couple liable to be charged with the serious Islamic crime of adultery. In practice, it means that they do not receive the social benefits of a married couple, and the inheritance rights of their children are not easily proved. Baha'is do military service, but they are never promoted beyond the lowest ranks.

They are no longer being physically exterminated, but normal life is being made impossible for them. They are being starved economically and it is hard for them to practise their faith. They are treated as alien and treacherous people, and their faith is seen as an insult to Islam.

Many have left the country. Others would do so if they could get passports. However, the three Baha'is I met made it clear that most of all they would like to live on, normally and without persecution, in Iran, the land of their birth.

Why does the Islamic Republic hate them so much? The prophet of their faith, Baha'ullah, came from Nur in Iran 150 years ago to put forward a religion that accepts the validity of all past religions, Islam included. However, since he was brought up as a Muslim, he is deemed by the strict followers of Islam to have deserted the faith. The founder of Baha'ism is therefore, they say, guilty of apostasy. And so, some claim, are his followers today. And apostasy is punishable by death. Nor does it help, in Iran's frenetic political climate, that the headquarters of the faith is in Haifa, Israel.

Baha'ism proclaims "the oneness of mankind" and rejects all political movements that divide the human race. It is opposed, for instance, to national frontiers and to political parties, but it asks its followers to obey the law and to pay taxes.

It is difficult to see anything harmful in the precepts of such a quiet faith, but the Iranian authorities of the mid-1800s treated its followers abominably, killing tens of thousands. There are today six million Baha'is in the world, spread over 176 countries, including one million in India and 130,000 in the United States. It is only in Iran, apparently, that they are seen as a danger to society and treated accordingly.

The mistreatment of the Baha'i community is the darkest feature of an already dark picture of Iranian persecution of groups it does not like. I hope that the three gentle Baha'is I met will live to see better days.