This week marks a landmark in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s crimes against that country’s small Baha’i community: Seven years ago this week the regime imprisoned seven peaceful Baha’i leaders. What is the true nature of Iran’s clerical regime? The answer is visible in its continuing brutal treatment of this religious minority, just 300,000 people in a nation of 70 million—less than one half of one percent of the population.
From its early days, the Islamic Republic has singled out the Baha’i for discrimination and then persecution. They are seen as apostates from Islam, because their faith originated in Iran in the 19th century. The existence of the Baha’i international headquarters and shrine in Haifa, Israel have led to repeated accusations of spying and treason. Hundreds of Baha’i were killed and thousands imprisoned in the early decades of theocratic rule after the revolution in 1979. Baha’i institutions were all closed in 1983; Baha’i marriages are not recognized; Bahai’s are discriminated against in employment; their holy places have been destroyed; and Baha’i children are kept out of universities. The UN’s special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, in his March 2015 report, noted one emblematic and shameful incident: when roughly one million students took the national math exam in 2014, a Baha’i student placed 113th in the entire country. But he was nevertheless barred from attending a public university.
Barred from Iran’s universities, the Baha’i set up an educational network for their children in 1987, called the Baha’i Institute of Higher Education. The institute has been subjected to raids ever since, with equipment seized and staff arrested. In 2011 the institute was declared illegal and seven faculty members were charged with “conspiracy against national security.” They fought the charges, but their lawyer was then himself sentenced to 13 years in prison. The Baha’i instructors got four or five years each, and later that same year six more instructors were jailed. What’s the crime, exactly? “Membership of the deviant sect of Baha’ism, with the goal of taking action against the security of the country.”
The persecution continues to increase—including since the election of the supposed reformer Hassan Rouhani as president in 2013. For example, there were 57 Baha’is in prison in 2011, but by January 2014 the number had reached 136 (in addition to hundreds more awaiting trial or sentencing). The UN special rapporteur’s report notes additional arrests last fall. And state-controlled media have greatly increased their attacks on the Baha’i: instead of once every day or two in previous years, last year attacks were running an amazing average of 400 per month.
The regime continues to deny the Baha’i rights all other citizens hold. A long overdue reform to the Iranian legal code that offers greater protection for minorities finally passed in 2013. Under the new law, in cases of murder the law looks upon the life of an Iranian Muslim and that of his minority compatriot as equally valuable when it comes to financial restitution to the victim’s family. But the new law only includes religious minorities recognized by the constitution, so Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians are covered—only the Baha’i are not.
The Baha’i have no clergy and are self-governing communities with ad hoc leaders. The informal leadership group in Iran, the “Yaran-i-Iran” or “friends of Iran,” were arrested in May 2008 and sent to Tehran’s notorious Evin prison. These seven men and women remain in prison today, seven years later. They’ve been charged with espionage, cooperation with Israel, and “spreading corruption on Earth,” among other crimes. They were tried in closed sessions in 2010. One of the lawyers who tried to represent them, Nobel Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, says there was no evidence against them—nor did they get a fair trial. But all seven were sentenced to 20 year terms.
On this seventh anniversary of their incarceration, it’s worth remembering the viciousness and the deceit with which the Iran continues to treat its peaceful Baha’i citizens. The truth about life in the Islamic Republic is revealed not by the smooth diplomats it sends abroad for international negotiations, but by the suffering of these peaceful and vulnerable citizens.