In recent months, members of Iran’s Bahá’í community have been facing a double threat. Not only is the risk of infections from the coronavirus epidemic gripping their nation, a tide of religious persecution is also rising.
Writing for Australian Outlook in May, the distinguished Australian commentator on the Middle East, Professor Amin Saikal, described Iran as “the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Middle East.” Iran is also the epicentre for another menacing phenomenon—the escalating persecution of adherents of the Bahá’í faith.
The Bahá’í faith is a worldwide religion which began in Iran in the mid-19th century. Its members constitute Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority. However, they remain unrecognised as such by the Islamic Republic, which acknowledges only its Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian minorities.
The teachings expounded by Baha’u’llah, the prophet-founder of the Bahá’í faith, emphasise equality of men and women, service to society, inter-religious understanding, and the harmony of science and religion.
Nevertheless, Iran’s clerical rulers label the Bahá’í faith a heresy by reason of it being a post-Islamic religion. Labelled “unclean” in a religious ruling or fatwa by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Bahá’ís are subjected to systematic persecution that prevents them from working in many professions, bars them from university, denies them equal treatment under the law, exposes them to physical and defamatory attacks, and condemns many to imprisonment merely for their beliefs.
History shows that attacks on Bahá’ís increase at times of national upheaval or crisis in Iran, when the authorities are seeking a convenient scapegoat to deflect public discontent. This pattern has repeated, for example, in the aftermath of the 1905 Constitutional Revolution, the 1953 coup d’etat against the elected Prime Minister, and the 2009 Green Movement.
During the initial stages of Iran’s response to coronavirus, there was hope that this time would be different. Some Bahá’í prisoners of conscience were included among the more than 54,000 inmates temporarily released as part of the efforts by authorities to clear Iran’s overcrowded prisons in order to reduce the risk of transmission.
But the backlash has now come. In recent weeks, more than 77 Bahá’ís across eight provinces have been arrested, summoned to court, tried, sentenced to jail, imprisoned, or re-incarcerated. In the city of Shiraz, the fabled abode of poets and roses, 40 Bahá’ís have been summoned to court where a judicial official has threatened to “uproot” the longstanding Bahá’í community.
Already seven Bahá’ís in Shiraz have been sentenced for up to 13 years imprisonment, after the court found that their efforts to protect the environment and to help with children’s education constituted “propaganda against the regime” and “forming groups against the regime.”
Other Bahá’ís have been charged with offences that carry heavy penalties. These include “insulting the sanctities of Islam”; “membership in the illegal and anti-security deviant Bahá’í sect”; and “propaganda in favour of the Bahá’í group as an organisation opposed to the sacred Islamic Republic.”
That’s the kind of doublespeak made possible when an entire religion is criminalised, when mere belief in its prophet-founder is regarded as a threat to national security, and when disclosing one’s membership is sufficient to be considered an act of propaganda against the state. The allegations ignore the fact that the teachings of their faith require Bahá’ís to be well-wishers of their government and not to engage in partisan politics. Respect for Islam is also integral to Bahá’í belief.
Behind these escalating attacks is an unspoken yet very real threat. In Shiraz in 1983, the authorities executed ten Bahá’í women aged between 17 and 54, merely for teaching the Bahá’í equivalent of Sunday school. They were among more than 200 Bahá’ís killed or executed during the first decade of the Islamic Republic.
Disinformation spreads as rapidly in Iran as the coronavirus. Recent months have seen a significant boost in hate speech against Bahá’ís by state sanctioned media. More than 3000 articles of anti- Bahá’í propaganda have been identified so far this year, with television channels, newspapers, radio stations and social media saturated with blatantly false content that denigrates Baha’i beliefs and is clearly aimed at ostracising the Bahá’í community.
In this time of crisis, when governments throughout the world are focussing on domestic health and economic recovery, and when many of the old tools of diplomacy have been temporarily set aside, what international response is possible?
A welcome start is the renewal of the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Professor Javaid Rehman, by the UN Human Rights Council on 22 June after resuming its 43rd session, suspended in mid-March due to coronavirus. As a member of the Human Rights Council, Australia’s support for this resolution is commendable. It is in line with a long-standing policy of Australia to condemn the persecution of Bahá’ís in Iran. As soon as circumstances permit, Iran should be encouraged to allow Professor Rehman, a British-Pakistani jurist, to enter the country to carry out his important work, an invitation it failed to extend to his two predecessors.
Australia is one of a handful of countries to have a formal human rights dialogue with Iran, although the expected third round of the dialogue did not go ahead in 2019. Human rights dialogues can be used to promote the protection of human rights, always with the proviso that participation does not preclude parties from raising issues through other bilateral and multilateral means. If and when the dialogue resumes, the willingness of Iranian officials to discuss the treatment of the Bahá’ís as a regular feature of the dialogue will be a litmus test for sincerity in engaging in what both sides describe as a “frank and constructive” discussion.
Can any more immediate steps be taken? In her 16 June address at the National Security College of the ANU, Foreign Minister Marise Payne observed: “If there is a silver lining in foreign affairs to the COVID challenges, it might be that online communication has begun to fulfil its potential as a tool of modern diplomacy.” Senator Payne described “meeting in virtual mode almost every day with other foreign ministers and leaders from across the globe, sharing ideas, approaches and strategies.” Could the rise in Zoom diplomacy save the pandemic from being used as an opportunity to ramp up state-sponsored human rights abuse without being noticed?
Could this tool enable governments that value human rights to express their views, acting alone or in old and new partnerships, to those violating the norms of the international system more quickly, directly, and unitedly than they have in the past?
The Bahá’í citizens in Iran’s city of poets and roses – and indeed throughout that country – can only hope so.
Dr Natalie Mobini is Vice-President of the AIIA ACT Branch. A member of the Australian Bahá’í community, she serves as Director of its Office of External Affairs. She is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, Charles Sturt University.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.