Baha’is of Iran

Location: Tehran, Shiraz and elsewhere
Population: 150,000-300,000
% of population: 0.4%-0.7%
Religion: Baha’i
Language: Farsi

The Baha’is are a religious minority whose numbers worldwide probably exceed three million. Baha’ism is a modern religion, founded in the mid-nineteenth century in southern Iran as an offshoot of Shia Islam.

Baha’is believe in a completely transcendent and unknowable God, manifestation of whose divine essence is revealed to believers in the form of prophets or messengers who appear through the ages. Membership of the faith is not automatic at birth but must be taken consciously once a child reaches maturity. Baha’is believe in the unity of man and religion and in universal education, sexual equality and world peace. They are opposed to all forms of prejudice and must not belong to any political party. There is no priesthood among Baha’is but there is an administrative hierarchy with considerable authority. The Baha’ullah, second Missionary manifestation of God, was exiled to Palestine by the Persian authorities long before the state of Israel was created, and the Baha’i World Centre is now in Haifa in Israel, a fact which has frequently been held against them by Islamic governments. Missionary activity has carried Baha’ism to many parts of the world, including North America, India, South-East Asia and Africa.

Persecution in Iran

Prejudice against the Baha’is has been very strong in Iran, especially by the present fundamentalist Islamic government in power since 1979. Baha’is have been accused not only of being heretics but also of co-operating actively with the Shah’s regime and of being opposed to the present regime. They have been suspected of achieving success because of their membership of what is perceived as an elitist and semi-secret society (similar to that of freemasonry), and they are believed to be agents of Zionism. Baha’is are also accused of being morally corrupt.

Persecution of Baha’is has occurred since the founding of the faith and at least 3,000 Baha’is are believed to have died between 1848-52. The first half of the twentieth century was relatively peaceful although the Baha’is were always treated as second class citizens. Following a coup in 1955 there were an increasing number of attacks on Baha’i property, and public broadcasts denouncing Baha’i practices, including during the latter years of the Pahlavi reign, a time of relative liberalization, Baha’is were denied many of the rights enjoyed by others.

Since the victory in 1979 of Islamic fundamentalists under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini the position of the Baha’is has deteriorated dramatically. Within Iran the Baha’is are denied recognition as a religious minority. The Constitution of the Islamic Republic provides official recognition to four religions: Islam (including Sunni Islam), Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism. All civil rights stem from the Constitution and many aspects of personal status and law are governed by religious law; thus the Baha’is are faced with having to choose between denying their faith or breaking the law.

Since 1979 that the Baha’is have been officially persecuted because of their religious beliefs is beyond doubt and by March 1985, 195 Baha’is (almost all of whom were actively involved in the administration of the Baha’i community) were known to have been killed by the administration. There has been confiscation of property, including all property belonging to Baha’is collectively, looting and arson. The House of Bab, the most holy Baha’i shrine in Iran, was also destroyed in September 1979. In August 1983 the government formally announced a ban on all the administrative and community activities of the Baha’i faith and declared membership in a Baha’i administrative institution to be a criminal offence. Although the Baha’is immediately disbanded the institutions, arrests followed and by mid-1985 there were reported to have been over 700 Baha’is being held without charge in Iranian prisons. Torture has reportedly been systematically applied and deaths while in custody have increased. In 1983 there was a mass execution in Shiraz of 17 Baha’is including seven women and three teenage girls who were hanged for refusing to recant their faith.

Economic pressure has also been imposed with the aim, it would seem, of rendering the Baha’i community bankrupt. Education has been restricted and Baha’is are not permitted to open their own schools, unlike other religious minorities. In 1982 all Baha’i government employees — including doctors, nurses and teachers — were dismissed from their jobs. Baha’is are no longer eligible for new identity cards unless they profess membership of one of the four official religions. In addition to being denied civil rights the Baha’is have been subject to vilification through the state-controlled media.

International reaction to the persecution of Iran’s Baha’i citizens has been expressed through the Council of Europe since 1981 and the UN Commission of Human Rights; however the Iranian government continues to deny that religious persecution is taking place but charges the Baha’i community with being a politically-motivated, Western-backed, pro-Zionist organization.

Although reliable information is not always available it appears that the level of persecution of the Baha’i community has fallen somewhat since the mid-1980s. While summary arrest and detention continues, the numbers detained have dropped and in June 1987, 200 Baha’is were reported to have been in detention, solely because of their faith. The numbers of Baha’is killed or executed by mobs has also fallen. Economic pressure and harassment continues, religious freedom is denied and Baha’is were unable to obtain passports and exit permits unless they recanted their faith.

(See also Ahmadis of Pakistan in South Asia)