Persecution of the Bahá'í Community of Iran Under the Islamic Republic:
Converging Realities, 1:1
1. The Revolution
2. The Islamic Republic
3. 1977-1979: The Months of Transition and the Bahá'í Community
4. 1979-1986: The Islamic Republic and the Bahá'í Community
5. The Government and Individual Bahá'ís
6. The Government and Bahá'í Institutions
7. 1987-1997: The Second Decade of Revolution and the New Generation of Bahá'ís
8. The Moderate Presidency and the Bahá'ís
11 February 1999, marked the twentieth anniversary of the establishment of the Islamic Revolution in Irán. Along with the birth pangs of an Islamic Republic, various segments of the Iranian society began to experience many changes and challenges in their overall living conditions. The Bahá'í community, the largest religious minority in that land, faced challenges that were life threatening to thousands of its followers throughout Irán. Twenty years after the Revolution, the Bahá'ís continue to wrestle with what is recognized by the international community as religious persecution. This article aims to describe some of the main categories of persecutions; execution, expulsion, and confiscation carried out against the Bahá'í community in Irán over the past twenty years. This time span is divided into three periods: first, the turbulent months of the Revolution 1978 and 1979; second, the eight-year period of intense persecution following the establishment of the Islamic Republic; and third, the twelve-year period of dispersed and mostly veiled persecutions from 1987 to 1999.
At the close of this sort of survey of recent events, it is well to remind ourselves of how blind we are likely to be to new things that will attain great importance in years to come. Perhaps some obscure group of men hold the future in their hands, as followers of Buddha, Christ, and Mohammad once did. (William McNeill, A History of the Human Community)No one is sure exactly when or how the Revolution began. Some argue that the 1979 Revolution was the machination of the bazaaris who yearned to re-establish their lost status earned through the 1906 Constitutional Revolution. Bazaar means market, and bazaaris refer to those businessmen who are considered religious and are significant contributors financially to activities promoting Islamic ideals (Peretz, 1988, p.51). Others may argue that the Revolution was a reaction to a primary target, the United States, due to its role in Irán since the 1953 coup d'état (Rouhani, 1998, p.1). What is certain however, is that October 1977, marked the point of departure of a battle between the supporters of Ayatu'llah Rúhu'lláh Komeini and the Shah of Irán. It was in October, 1979, that the elder son of Khomeini, Mustafá, was allegedly killed by SAVAK (Iranian intelligence collection agency) agents. The traditional fortieth day memorial services for Mustafa were defining moments for the Revolution (Mackey, 1996, p. 277). Qum, Tabriz, Shiráz and Tihrán were the first cities to witness riots and disorder, caused by businesspeople and students, who were at the forefront of demonstrations.
The fire at the Rex cinema in August 1978, placed Abadan, one of the main cities of southern Irán, on the map of unrest. In September, Tihrán's Jaleh Square beheld one of the bloodiest days of the Revolution. In October and November, liberals, supporters of the Marxist Tudih party, and the Islamic Fundamentalists continued to form the masses of protestors. Robbery, attacks by the Chumaqdaran on homes and properties, continuous clashes between the people and the military, along with a general sense of insecurity set terror among all. The Chumaqdaran are groups of revolutionary people who would attack homes, ransack everything, and kill the occupants (Mackey, 1996; Roohizadegan, 1993).
In December 1978, a national curfew calmed the streets at night. Schools and universities were closed down. The country experienced paralysis as food, petroleum, electricity, and water became scarce. In January 1979, the Sháh left the country for the last time, and two weeks later, on the first day of February, Ayatu'llah Khomeini returned to Irán after fifteen years of exile. In the midst of chaos and power struggles among the various factions supporting the Revolution, the March referendum set the country in motion towards a new state, that of an Islámic Republic. Ayatu'llah Khomeini was declared as the spiritual leader and later was given the authority of Vilayat-i-Faqih (Supreme Jurisprudent) in the country. Abú'l-Hasan Bani Sadr and Mihdi Bazargan became the first president and prime minister respectively of the new regime. The three main organs of the government -the Kumitihs, the Revolution Council, and its Guards Corps-and the Revolutionary Tribunals began their reign.
During the first nine months of the new regime, some six hundred Iranians faced death by Revolutionary firing squads. There are varying estimates on this matter according to different publications by various factions, ranging from a few hundred to thousands. The number of six hundred is from Mackey (1996, p. 291). The chilling sound of firing squads during the early hours of dawn became a part of Tihrán's Evin and Qasr Prisons' neighborhoods. The intoxicated populace, mainly composed of students who had sought freedom through the Fadaiyan-i-Islám (a right-wing faction of Muslim Fundamentalists), Anjuman-i-Tablight-i-Islami (an anti-Bahá'í group headed by Halabi and Mutjahidin groups, as well as figures including Khalkhali), filled the streets with violence in the name of Islamic justice. The Mutjahidin are known as a Socialist-Islamic group that contributed much to the creation of the 1979 Revolution, but who were left behind by the Ulamá in the establishment of the post-Revolution government. Khalkhali is a cleric believed to be responsible for many brutal killings and feared by the general public. The American hostage crisis, the confiscation of thousands of private properties, and the destruction and pillage of some historic sites highlight the first months of the Revolution. Vast numbers of people left the country, while many returned hoping for a better life under the new leadership. Soon the Council of Guardians, the Assembly of Experts, a new constitution and the Majlis shaped the legislative front of the Revolution.
In 1981, the country united against the Iraqi invasion, and the streets were filled with chilchiraqs displaying photos of the fallen soldiers of war. The chilchiraq is a cylindrical arrangement of colored light bulbs with photos of the deceased, flowers, and at times black fabric, about two meters long, displayed on sidewalks, as a temporary shrine. Often a tape recording of quranic chants accompany the exposition. Newspapers were filled with obituaries, summons, death sentences, and confiscation announcements along with columns attesting to the division among various ulamá and their followers. Gradually, the Foundation for the Destitute (an organ of the government with the mandate to confiscate the properties of the condemned and allocating these resources to those deserving them) and the Kumitih-i-Imám (the Committee of Imam Khomeini, the highest kumitih) joined the ranking organs of the country and carried out many arrests and confiscations. The economy suffered greatly as the Rial currency continued to lose its value. All schools faced changes as religious studies, Arabic and Islamic history along with mandatory prayer sessions, chanting from the Qu'rán and Revolutionary songs were placed among the first priorities for a good Iranian student.
Women were faced with the Hijab policies, which specify the manner in which men and in particular women must be attired. Based on the decree of Ayatu'llah Khomeini, music was banned. Tharallah patrol cars roamed all streets checking for the sound of music or any large gathering at homes, clothing, and make-up on pedestrians or drivers. These patrol cars were usually Toyota 4x4 utility vehicles, carrying four male or female pasdars, who were responsible for upholding the official laws on appearance and conduct in public. The slightest mistake could lead to arrests and public lashing of bare backs, carried out by terrorizing elements in broad daylight. Lines of men and women filled the streets as food rations were controlled through coupons distributed by local mosques. Ministers, prime ministers, and other officials changed rapidly as they either left, feeling betrayed by the system, were removed by higher officials, or through assassinations and bombings by the opposition.
After the end of the Irán-Iraq war in 1989 and the gradual settlement of the new Islamic culture and system, Irán was still facing economic battles with the West. The war had required Irán to spend as much as US$ 1 billion a month (Peretz, 1988, p. 527), and the sanctions and soaring inflation made life difficult for most Iranians. International relations suffered as there was little access to the latest technological and scientific advancements.
After the death of Ayatu'llah Khomeini in 1989, two main figures occupied the seats of power. Ayatu'llahs Khamini'í and Hashimi Rafsanjani led the nation as the Valy-i-Faqih and President, respectively. Rafsanjani held the first ever interview with CNN's Christian Amanpour, and some relations with some nations of the West were established. However, the basic message of Irán remained the same and the country established its image as a fundamentalist Muslim regime. In the meantime, the population of Irán increased in number but decreased in age. By 1997, the young generation of Iranians expressed their desire to join the rest of the world in progress and development by electing Ayatu'llah Khatami, a moderate cleric, to the office of the President.
Today, Irán remains as one of the most intriguing countries of the world. Its Revolution is long established, but its policies are still questioned by the international community. Irán's record of human rights is one of the most sensitive areas of investigation. The persecution of the Bahá'í community is no doubt "a classic case of the violation of human rights, produced by religious intolerance" (BIC OPI, 1992-93, p. 247). For twenty years, the officials in Irán have denied all rights of the Bahá'ís on an individual or collective basis (Martin, 1984, p. 41). Consistently, the government has denied all evidences of a systematic approach, even in 1991, when the International Community discovered an official document signed by the highest authorities in Irán, testifying to the government's plan to eradicate the Bahá'ís, not only from Irán but also from the rest of the world (Iranian Government Document, 1991).
Accordingly, 1999 marks not only the twentieth anniversary for the establishment of a new regime in Irán but also the twentieth year of a new wave of persecution against the Bahá'ís in their homeland. Imprisonment, expulsions, confiscation of community and private properties, harassment, kidnapping, and execution began with the first stages of the Revolution and with this anniversary the newborn state has not been lead to observe even the most basic human rights for this tried and tormented community.
3. 1977-1979: The Months of Transition and the Bahá'í Community
Since 1977, the Bahá'í community began to experience an upsurge in harassment in various local communities around the country. The Tablighat-i-Islami members, whose organization was strong and grew increasingly independent of SAVAK (Martin, 1984, pp. 32-39) began to appear on a regular basis to cause disruptions at gatherings or local mosques in cities with more established Bahá'í communities. Oftentimes ridicule and disrespect to the central beliefs and figures of the Bahá'í Faith was the first difficulty created by these individuals. Other members of anti-Bahá'í groups joined the Bahá'í community under false pretences, only to be discovered later as spies. They were of great assistance to the authorities in the arrest of Bahá'ís and seizure of Bahá'í properties during the first months of the Islamic Republic.
In 1978, the populace filled with religious fervor and passion for Islamic fundamentalism, and led by the ulamá, felt free to unleash their fury at Bahá'ís wherever possible. The accusations of political involvement of the Bahá'ís as foreign agents, immorality, or false allegations of connections to SAVAK and the Shah (BIC-UNO, 1982, pp.21-24), justified any act of cruelty towards the Bahá'ís. In the midst of the Revolutionary upheavals, close to twenty Bahá'ís were killed by mobs, beaten, or burned to death, kidnapped or executed (pp. 51-57). Current records show that Rúhu'lláh Taymuri Muqadam was the first to suffer martyrdom at the hands of fanatical elements in early 1977 (BIC OPI, 1976-1979, p. 434). Mass arrests and attacks were emerging in a number of cities and the word Bahá'í was used as an offensive term, signifying almost an immediate rightful ground for any type of atrocity, even death. The authorities declared Bahá'ís as Mahdur ad-damm (those whose blood may be shed), based on the Islamic practice of having the right to eliminate all non-believers. Believers are defined as those who follow the teachings of a divinely revealed holy book. The Bahá'ís, according to the ulamá, are non-believers, and shedding their blood is Halal (permitted) upon all Muslims. In 1978 the government agents "harassed the Bahá'ís in several localities in order to transfer onto them the wrath of the anti-government crowds"
(BIC OPI, 1979-1983, p. 251).
During this period, the Bahá'í communities in the central area of Irán suffered intense persecution. In the late 70s the Bahá'í community of Shiráz grew to some four thousand members. Aside from Tihrán, where the national headquarters of the largest religious minority of Irán was situated, Shiráz occupied a special place in the heart of all Bahá'ís, for it was in Shiráz where the first events associated with the dawn of the Bahá'í era took place. Furthermore, the house in which the Báb proclaimed His mission as the Promised Qá'im, and thus, a point of pilgrimage for generations of Bahá'ís, was located in the heart of the city. Hundreds of Bahá'ís from around the world visited this city each year to see the very sites where the first events of Bahá'í history took place. Attacks on the Bahá'ís in Buyr Ahmad and Sa'adiyyih, and the destruction of the House of the Báb were severe blows to the heart of this religious community.
Some of the first acts of aggression towards the Bahá'í community of Fars included an attack on the Bahá'í cemetery in Shiraz. Sa'adiyyih was the site of demonstrations, pillage, and violence on 14 December 1978. Two Bahá'ís were shot dead during these incidents, and their homes were damaged and ransacked (Gulistanih, 1992, pp. 2-3). Graves were destroyed, buildings were pillaged, and the many Bahá'í properties were set on fire. Later that evening, a neighborhood near Shiraz suffered a major mob attack.
In January 1979, the Bahá'ís of Buyr Ahmad fell victim to the abuse of religious mobs. Buyr Ahmad is one of the more established Bahá'í communities with active members. It is situated in the mountains separating Fars and Isfáhán provinces. One of the members of the Lur tribe of Buyr Ahmad at the age of 105 moved to a village in the province of Luristan to promote the Bahá'í Faith. It is this caliber of Bahá'ís that the local mulla branded as members of SAVAK or Zionist spies. The non-Bahá'í members of the mostly Bahá'í clan of Sadat-Mahmudi attacked the six Bahá'í homes in Guruzih on January twelfth. The frightened victims were so overwhelmed with this sudden development that they fled their homes, leaving behind three infants. The following day they returned to their damaged properties, but the attacks continued. Bahá'ís moved from place to place, but in addition to Guruzih, Darih-Shur, Kata, and Katuk a number of other villages witnessed the same inhumanity. Hundreds of Bahá'ís were made homeless, many were injured or killed. At last they sought shelter in the Bahá'í Centre of the nearby city of Isfáhán. A refugee camp was set up in the desert campsite of Mihyar for the twelve hundred homeless Bahá'ís. The Revolutionary Kumitih sent its representatives to the camp to hold a sermon insulting Bahá'í beliefs. This cruelty ended when a child bravely and beautifully recited a Bahá'í prayer. The local Bahá'ís rushed to the assistance of their fellow believers until July of that year, when the mullá who had instigated this upheaval, "was disgraced by the Revolutionary authorities for his misconduct on some other counts and was banished from the region"(BIC OPI, 1979-83, pp. 273-274).
In May 1979, a number of local mullás infiltrated the community in Shiraz by befriending its members and gradually took over the use of the Bahá'í Centre to carry out the work of the revolutionary government. By July, the building was declared as the new headquarters for the Revolutionary Council and Kumitihs in that city. Bahá'ís were no longer welcomed, and along with the property and its furnishing, all records and documents of thousands of members of the Bahá'í community were seized. In late June, the first attempts at the destruction of the House of the Báb were underway. The Revolutionary guards took over the house asserting the need to protect the property (Sears, 1982, pp. 69-76). Soon the Bahá'ís who were responsible for the day to day care of the property in and around the house were evicted and eventually thrown out (Roohizadegan, 1993, pp. 22-27). Ayatu'llahs Mahallati, Rabbani Shirazi, Taliqani, and Dastghayb were the main figures who authorized this campaign of seizure and destruction. Various mobs and officials, on a number of occasions, visited the site and gradually razed this holy place to the ground. By October, nothing was left of the house or the alley. Eventually, the authorities claimed that the area was needed for a new square, and its destruction was part of city planning that affected other parts of the city as well. During the months and years that followed, the site of the House of the Báb was turned into a public parking area, and no authority responded to the appeals of the worldwide community to restore this historic and holy place.
Thus, the Bahá'ís in central Irán began their twenty-year journey of persecution, while the rest of the national community struggled with similar challenges. Arrests, executions, forceful or false recantations, confiscation, and expulsion became a routine part of life for the Bahá'ís in the heart of the land. By the end of 1979, this region had the highest number of Bahá'ís killed in one way or another, for the crime of Bahá'ísm (based on the long-standing accusation of espionage for a number of countries, including Russia, the United States of America, and Britain, the Bahá'ís are referred to as a party of people following an ideology, i.e., Bahá'ísm). A particular instance was that of Habibu'llahh Awji, who as a Muslim, took part in the destruction of the House of the Báb. His sufferings after this incident, led him to investigate the Bahá'í Faith, and he became a believer. He was jailed, tortured and finally executed during the later years of persecution (Gulistanih, 1992, p. 131).
With the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the representatives of the Bahá'í community began a process of appeal to the Iranian and international authorities, seeking attention to the crimes already committed and the protection of the rights of the Iranian Bahá'ís in the coming months and years. While different authorities made diverse promises, the Islamic Republic's intentions became more evident after the 1979 Constitution was written and the Bahá'ís, comprising of hundreds of thousands of Iranians, were excluded. Such an exclusion, in light of the fact that the Republican government conditions civil rights on inclusion in the Constitution, solidified the path of persecution of Bahá'ís. Objections to this deliberate act met with an official statement by the Iranian embassies asserting that the Bahá'ís are a "misguided group" affiliated with "world Zionism"(Martin, 1984, p. 43).
Appeals by various governments and nongovernmental organizations, special commissions of the United Nations, and congressional hearings in the United States formed the means of seeking rights for the Iranian Bahá'ís. No effort helped to ease the situation, rather, the intensity of persecutions escalated. In 1979, a number of Bahá'ís were kidnapped, among them young Bahá'í girls who were forced to recant and marry Muslims (BIC OPI, 1979-83, p. 253). Forceful recantations at local mosques or as published in newspapers became a familiar feature in the daily persecution of Bahá'ís. Expulsion forms, stating clearly the consequence of loss of job and income for Bahá'ís filled offices. Thus, the pressure was no longer limited to social factors, in addition, economically the Bahá'ís were being forced into extinction. Hundreds were summoned, interrogated, or imprisoned. Two major companies responsible for trust funds (Nawnahalan), as well as purchase and maintenance of community properties and holy places of the Bahá'ís (Umana), were progressively confiscated. First, the sites were raided and searched; later through gradual placement of officers employed by the government, the Bahá'ís were dismissed (p. 252). Concomitant with this takeover was the forceful acquisition of hundreds of Bahá'í holy places and properties throughout the country. The national offices in the heart of Tihrán were no exception. With this move, the government accessed the records and documents obtaining a wide range of information on all Bahá'ís in Irán. By seizing the central headquarters of this organized community, the authorities hoped to paralyze Bahá'í efforts and progress.
Among the properties funded by the Bahá'ís and open to the general public was the Mithaqiyyih Hospital. It housed one of the best medical services and training facilities in the country. Its staff included some of the best health professionals in the world. Mithaqiyyih, much like Nawnahalan and Umana, was confiscated gradually and systematically. It was renamed as Mustafa Khumaini Hospital, and all of its Bahá'í staff were expelled. One of the Bahá'ís involved with the hospital was a foremost doctor of the time, Professor Manuchihr Hakim. Dr. Hakim not only was the Director of the Hospital but also served on the national governing body of the Bahá'í community in Irán. He contributed extensively to the field of medicine and "was decorated by the French government with the Legion d'honneur in 1976 for his humanitarian services to mankind"(Sears, 1982, p. 86). In 1981, following a number of threats and harassment, two gunmen who posed as patients in his office, assassinated Dr. Hakim. No efforts were made to find the assassins and a Kumitih in Tihrán confiscated Dr. Hakim's properties, shortly after his death.
The martyrdom of Professor Hakim was not the first. The entire membership of the National Spiritual Assembly along with two colleagues assisting the Assembly with community affairs of the Bahá'ís in Tihrán and surrounding areas, had been kidnapped by the authorities five months earlier in August, 1980 (BIC OPI, 1983-86) No one ever learned of their fate. However, when the second group replacing this body was arrested in the same manner and their execution after two weeks of imprisonment was disclosed, the Bahá'ís assumed that the first group must have met their death under similar circumstances. Close to twenty-five others were placed in front of firing squads, hanged, stoned, assassinated, or burned to death that same year.
The pattern of decisions and actions by the authorities made one policy clear: by removing the national and local representatives of the Bahá'ís, it hoped the community would disperse and perish. An outstanding Bahá'í historian explains that such measures were indubitably affected by the authorities' understanding of the role of the clergy in the life and functions of a muslim religious community (Martin, 1984, p. 49). However, the case of the Bahá'ís proved otherwise. Between 1979 and 1986, almost ninety members of local and national governing bodies in nine major centers were put to death (BIC OPI, 1983-86), but the Bahá'í community did not cease to exist.
Attacks on the lives of individual Bahá'ís soon followed the first waves of persecution. Private homes and businesses were ransacked and seized by the officials. In some locations, authorities and their representatives proceeded street by street to attack or ransack Bahá'í homes, search every room, remove all Bahá'í books, photos, and records. Gawhardasht (near Tihrán) is an example of this approach. Shaykh Rahnima and his gang literally began their attacks on Bahá'í homes from Street N. 4, where the home of the Furuhars (now a kumitih) was and continued all the way to the northernmost street. Items including telephone books, listing the contact information of other possible targets; or family albums, establishing links with other sought after individuals, were taken, as in the eyes of the authorities they were evidence of espionage. Bahá'ís continued to be arrested in large numbers and their families terrorized. Many were made homeless, seeking shelter in their cars or as guests of others. Parks, shops, and restaurants soon became the meeting places of relatives, friends, and family members who had to live apart. Hundreds began to join the thousands of Iranians who were fleeing the country through the borders with Pakistan or Turkey.
Expulsion and frozen assets impoverished hundreds of families. On 8 December 1981, the Ministry of Labour published a letter in Kayhan newspaper noting that Bahá'ís would face dismissal from their government positions for life (BIC OPI, 1983-86, p. 264). The Ministry of Education, the National Oil Company, and the Army followed a similar pattern of paksazi, an official term used in reference to expulsion of Bahá'ís, meaning "cleansing". Pensions and salaries of retired personnel were cut. Mortgage and bank loans were cancelled or recalled. With such limited financial resources, numerous Bahá'ís were refused the government-sponsored food coupons and were forced to pay the high prices in black markets. By early 1982, the national representatives of the Bahá'ís in Irán noted that the community was under increasing stress with respect to its members' financial needs (p. 264).
News of arrests, deaths, funeral processions and memorial services, visits to the released prisoners, often bearing marks of torture, were a part of daily life of Bahá'ís. Throughout 1982, entire memberships of Bahá'í Spiritual Assemblies were arrested and tortured. In Tihrán, Shiráz, Qazvin, Yazd, Mashhad, Hamadán, Karaj and Tabriz, Bahá'ís suffered mass arrests. Even in the midst of these tribulations, the Bahá'ís continued to weave the bonds of love between their fellow believers and the society at large. Families of every prisoner were visited regularly. The instances of hospitality toward the Kumitih members and gift giving even to the executioners happened frequently. Yusif Subhani embraced and greeted his guards and firing squad. Yadu'llah Vahdat, following the example of Ihsan Mihdizadih, asked his executioner not to blindfold him, so that he could "welcome the bullets with open eyes" (BIC OPI, 1983-86, p. 281).
Torture and torment were inherent to any period of imprisonment. Certain authorities took pleasure in inflicting pain upon the detainees. Hence, a number of prisons gained a reputation for severe torture of their prisoners, particularly the Bahá'ís. The jails in Evin, Gawhardasht, Mashhad, and Yazd ranked among the most brutal (BIC OPI, 1983-86, p. 203). With the countless casualties of daily unrest in cities and the Irán-Iráq war, the attorney general backed by Ayatu'llah Khomeini, instructed prosecutors to drain the blood of all condemned persons for use of medical personnel in saving the lives of "pasdar brothers" (Martin, 1984, p. 55). Verbal accounts by released prisoners who were forced to witness and clean torture facilities stunned all who heard them. Victims lost nails, sight, hearing, mental competence, some suffered for months and even died as a result of strain that the inhumane treatments placed upon them.
Torture was not confined to the walls of any prison. Often Bahá'ís faced insults, threats, and beatings in their own homes by guards who were in pursuit of them or their loved ones. Wives, friends and even children were detained as hostages when the intended individual was not found (a sibling and a house staff member of the writer were among those Bahá'ís detained in search of the writer's parents who were sought by government authorities). Unannounced raids, the right to confiscate any and all properties, and ignoring the plight of Bahá'ís created an extremely insecure atmosphere for young and old. However, the evidence that most shook the hearts was the physical marks of torture.
The worst case of torture was seen among the martyrs in Hamadán. Seven men were put to death in June 1981, following another seven killed in Tihrán and Shiráz since January 1981. Several had been interrogated and detained previously, but all were imprisoned on 12 August 1980. Their assets were confiscated, and upon their execution, their families were made homeless. The seven men were placed in a single cell for ten months. Torment filled their days, but the evidence of enmity covered their bloodied corpses, witnessed by many on the day of their funeral:
This same pattern of abuse and persecution continued in 1982 and 1983. In addition to the horror of war and socioeconomic adversity, arrests, and banishment along with court hearings and expulsion comprised the background for many additional killings. More than eighty Bahá'ís were put to death in at least five provinces. Shedding the blood of sixteen innocent Bahá'ís in June, 1983, ten of whom were primarily young women, ranks Shiráz as the site of yet another heartless crime in the annals of Bahá'í history. Intense efforts of torture by the authorities met with more valor on the part of the Bahá'ís. In the face of some of the worst acts of brutality, not one Bahá'í responded with violence. A few did recant under pressure (e.g., half the membership of the local Spiritual Assembly of Qazvin recanted), however, by far the majority of Bahá'ís, young and old, male or female, withstood mistreatment and followed the decree of Bahá'u'lláh that "it is better to be killed than to kill." Bahá'u'lláh, the Prophet-Founder of the Bahá'í Faith condemned murder. In a number of statements he ordained that His followers must prefer death to murder (Nabíl-i-Azam, 1975). The more the authorities tried to destroy the fabric of Bahá'í life, the stronger its warp and woof grew.
Evidence to this fact were the unforgettable funerals and memorial services. For funeral observances, thousands of Bahá'ís would travel from near and far to demonstrate their solidarity. The funeral services of the seven martyrs in Hamadán followed by the late June executions in Tihrán were witnessed by thousands of Muslims and Bahá'ís who marched together to bury their loved ones. Sears, in particular on p. 108, documents the account of many eyewitnesses from Hamadán who took part in the chants of Bahá'ís and Muslims crying out "Alláh'u'Abhá" and "Alláhu'akbar." Memorial services were held throughout the country for every martyr, attracting all eyes to this community of solemn mourners.
The funeral and memorial services were gatherings of historic significance and the strength that emanated from them, no doubt threatened those who hoped to extinguish the flame of Bahá'í life. On 29 August 1983, all Bahá'í administrative and community activities were banned, citing membership in these undertakings as a criminal offence. By 3 September 1983, the National Spiritual Assembly communicated to the attorney-general its adherence to the new "unjust and unfair" order, in a statement entitled: "An open letter from the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Irán about the banning of the Bahá'í Administration" (BIC OPI, 1983-86, p. 194). This document, distributed to thousands of individuals and institutions in Irán and around the world, refuted the false allegations against the Bahá'ís and requested the assurance of the authorities to guarantee their basic human rights, as outlined under thirteen points (p.189).
Despite such efforts, the officials' agenda to uproot the Bahá'ís persisted. Obvious proofs of such intentions included the confiscation and destruction of Bahá'í cemeteries throughout Irán. Prison terms increased, and often, family visits were not permitted, claiming the detainee was in asayishgah. The term asayishgah literally means "the place of comfort", however, this was a ward dedicated to those who were usually disfigured as a result of torture. Many prisoners experienced more torture. Bodies of martyrs were buried unceremoniously by the authorities, and families were notified of the loss of their loved ones after the fact. Many new deaths were caused by unknown factors. Examples include Firuz Purdil and Aminu'llah Qurbanpur. The officials devised new means to persecute Bahá'ís. In a letter, one of the Iranian Bahá'ís describes their circumstances:
Along with their steadfast parents, Bahá'í youth and children arose to demonstrate their firm dedication to their beliefs. Many willingly gave up their right to education in order to maintain their religion. Since the early days of the Revolution, the Ministry of Education, then headed by Raja'i, stated that all students were to be led to the "right path" (Sears, 1982, p. 143; BIC UNO, 1982, p. 74). The addition of a religion column in registration forms at schools and universities, and interrogation of students in classes and in administrative offices persisted. The courage of these young students in the face of threats and abuse astonished all and became a source of inspiration for others. As high school and university students were prevented from continuing their education, groups of youth gathered to learn arts, literature, and sciences. Scraps of notes, diaries, and booklets left by the martyrs and prisoners, many of whom were educated and educators, were the materials used in the first classes of these rejected students.
The youth did not only defend their beliefs at home and school. Many of those who were placed in confinement, tortured, or mistreated were youth. Fourteen of the more than two hundred who were put to death, were thirty-years-old or younger (Gulistanih, 1992, pp. 1-215). Others were subjected to abuse and an uncertain future. Two teenage sisters who were stopped in the street for a routine check by the Tharallah patrol and discovered to be Bahá'ís were immediately arrested and faced the following:
Finally, in 1987, the expelled Bahá'í students, administrators, and teachers began to coordinate their efforts to develop an organized campaign for education. At a time when moral laxity, crime and suicide infused the life of Iranian youth, once again the Bahá'ís demonstrated their resilience. Their effort resulted in what was called "The Bahá'í Institute for Higher Education." Classes were held in homes where small groups of five to fifteen studied together. Oftentimes non-Bahá'í youth took part in these study sessions as their quality proved higher than that of official institutions.
These tutorial courses met with much enthusiasm on the part of the community. Gradually courses extended to other fields, including biology, law, accounting, civil engineering and computer sciences. The Institute began with two hundred and fifty students throughout Irán. Volunteers helped in all areas and transformed the institute into a university (Office of Liaison, 1997). Every year nation-wide entrance examinations were attended by hundreds of youth. Due to limited resources, less than twenty percent of the applicants were admitted. Friends and relatives, helped to provide course materials, improve the day-to-day operation of the school, and restore the vision of a better future, where hope was lost.
While the community immersed itself in educating its youth, suffering persisted. Bahá'ís, to the present time, continue to face deprivation of civil rights and liberties. Bahá'í marriages and divorces are yet to be recognized. Members of the Bahá'í community in Irán have no right to private ownership or inheritance (BIC OPI, 1996-97, pp. 147-156). Although losing lives, properties, and assets continued, the pace and approach of the authorities became less overt. Officials began to refuse handing out documents related to atrocities carried out against the Bahá'ís. Incidents of arrests and execution happened more sporadically. In truth, the rapid and intense waves of confiscation, expulsion, and interrogation between 1979 and 1986 left little to be done. However, since the dawn of the Revolution, denying the responsibility for persecution of Bahá'ís has increasingly spread among the officers and representatives of the government.
In 1989, when the spiritual and political leader of the country, Ayatu'llah Khomeini, died, some suspected considerable changes in the overall policies of the government. Although this did happen, Ayatu'llah Khamini'í continued to maintain an atmosphere of intolerance towards the Bahá'ís. Despite the fact that the early 1990s witnessed fewer executions than the earlier decade, there was no real improvement in the situation of the Bahá'ís. The year 1992 witnessed one murder, an execution, and two death sentences among other atrocities. The year 1993 marked the tenth anniversary of the ban placed on Bahá'í administration. As children of the Revolution approached maturity, few could recall the characteristics of a Bahá'í religious community with at least some civil rights and lesser instances of oppression, as was experienced by the older generations.
One type of oppression that persisted since the first days of the Islamic Revolution, was the desecration and destruction of Bahá'í cemeteries, which contained the graves of some of the most prominent figures in the history of the Bahá'í community and of Iranian society. Regardless of innumerable appeals and complaints, the government of Irán has consistently destroyed these sites. This destruction with Ayatu'llah Khomeini's approval first took place during the 1955 upheavals, when Bahá'ís were experiencing mass persecutions by the clergy and the government. The 1979 Revolution followed the same pattern. In 1993 alone, more than fifteen thousand graves were desecrated, when the Bahá'í cemetery in Tihrán was partially destroyed and the Khavaran Islamic Cultural Center was built in its place. No information has been provided as to how the remains of the desecrated bodies were treated and where they were taken.
Indeed, since the 1980s, Bahá'ís were not permitted to bury their dead in their cemeteries in the capital or in several other cities. In Tihrán, a piece of land allocated for the Mutjahidin, among other groups, was shared by the Bahá'ís. Kufrabad, as referred to by the officials, had no facilities (Kufrabad roughly translates as the abode of apostates). Bahá'ís were not permitted to mark any graves or place headstones. Gradually and with the help of the Bahá'ís, a building, running water, walls and gates and some trees beautified the place. However Bahá'ís are not permitted to hold funeral services and their visits are often met with some form of mistreatment.
Protecting the Bahá'ís and their properties was the subject of heated debate, when in 1993, a secret circular entitled "Iranian government document on the Bahá'í question" was received by the international community, outlining the policies necessary to ensure that their "progress and development are blocked" (Iranian Government Document, 1991/1993). The paper was presented in Mr. Galindo Pohl's report to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, but it had come into existence as of 25 February 1991. The document signed and approved by Ayatu'llah Khamini'i, reflects the official position of ensuring that the Bahá'ís are barely able to continue their daily affairs, much less maintain their identity as members of a religious community. By learning of these secret official policies to oppress the Bahá'ís, the international community and the government of Irán could not but acknowledge the centralized and planned character of their campaign of religious persecution.
By then, a pattern for persecuting the Bahá'ís was well established and recognized. However, in addition to the usual troubles, certain incidents highlighted each year's events. In 1994, the Bahá'ís experienced a "lessening of some of the overt forms of persecution.… Nevertheless, violation of the full range of the community's rights in Iran" (BIC OPI, 1993-94, p.139) re-emphasized a valid cause for concern. That year, the legal system once again demonstrated its partiality toward the oppression of the followers of the Bahá'í Faith. Aside from ordering the seizure of many properties and placing innocent Bahá'ís in jail, at times without following the proper judicial procedures, a court released two murderers, as they had killed "an unprotected infidel" [a Bahá'í] (BIC OPI, 1994-95, p.134).
The year 1995 proved to be a difficult year for the Bahá'ís in Yazd, a community with a history of religious discrimination since the earliest days of the Bahá'í era. Beginning in the mid-1800s, its Muslim population displayed increased confidence in oppressing the resident Zoroastrian and Bahá'í minorities. In 1995, over one hundred and fifty cases of confiscation went unnoticed (BIC OPI, 1996-97, p.147-156). Later that year, the same court announced that "Mr. Dhabíhu'lláh Mahramí had been charged with religious apostasy, or abandoning the Faith of Islám" (BIC OPI 1995-96, pp. 139-144). He was condemned to death, but due to the rejection of the Supreme Court among others, the verdict has not yet been carried out.
The following year did not witness much improvement. Sorely tried Bahá'ís continued to demonstrate their utmost efforts to lead a life based on spiritual and ethical convictions wherever possible. Káshán lost Bahá'í-owned land to the construction of a new Mosque, while Kirmán and Mashhad joined many other communities in facing arrests, inspection, and confiscation of Bahá'í properties. By 1996, and surrounded by acts of hostility, the Institute for Higher Education, now known as the Bahá'í Open University, produced its first eleven graduates. Some nine years after the nucleus of this institution was formed, hundreds of students were pursuing skills and knowledge in various cities around the country. Self-study lessons, correspondence courses, limited tutorials, small labs and libraries, travelling lecturers and administrators were the main components of this university. From among the top students and graduates, a few were chosen to assist with the work of the university. Overall, the opportunity to promote education and train the young Bahá'ís offered some light at the end of a long and treacherous tunnel.
The year 1997 brought its own challenges. That year, the government modified the final year of secondary education, making it a pre-university education year. Once again Bahá'í youth were denied the right to take part in these classes, hence, placing an obstacle in the path of their ability even to complete their high school education. The Bahá'ís plunged into preparing lessons and offering twelfth grade education to their youngsters. While many were occupied with these tasks, a number of Bahá'ís were arrested and jailed. Between 1993 and 1997, some two hundred individuals were imprisoned for days, weeks, or months, and five were under death sentences (BIC OPI, 1996-97, pp. 147-156). Murders, beatings, and insults went unnoticed. In August, 1997, the world learned of seven cases of conscripted Bahá'ís serving in the military who had been shot and killed, often on the last day of their service. Sympathetic individuals and institutions around the globe lamented this news and hoped that the expected change in the presidency would be accompanied with more civil liberties and order for every Iranian, including the Bahá'ís.
In 1998, the new president, Ayatu'llah Khatami, began to express more moderate policies, calling for modernization of the country. That same year, during the opening session of the fifty-third General Assembly of the United Nations in New York, he invited the world to designate 2001 as a year for dialogue and discourse among civilizations, to improve international relations. Even though many hoped such ideals would extend to the Bahá'ís, nevertheless, more atrocities awaited this wronged community. In July, 1998, Ruhu'llah Rohani was executed in Mashhad, while several others received death sentences. As people around the world mourned the loss of Mr. Rohani, messages and official statements showered his family and the Bahá'í community. Empowered by this scene, the Bahá'ís responded bravely to his death, holding numerous memorials, perhaps the largest one of which was in Tihrán, witnessed by thousands of mourners.
Just as the Bahá'í community was adjusting to this recent execution, a more severe attack began. In September 1998, more than five hundred homes were raided by order of the attorney-general, removing study materials and personal belongings from homes hosting classes for the Open University students. Numerous cities suffered this orchestrated act, as close to forty teachers and administrators of the school were arrested. The prisoners were required to sign a document stating that the Open University "had ceased to exist as of 29 September, and agreeing that they would no longer cooperate with it" (BIC OPI, 1998 ). Thus, the Bahá'í youth in Irán were robbed of their only true opportunity to study and secure a better future for the coming years of the new millennium, and have been deprived of the information and knowledge that are the source of progress and prosperity.
In February 1999, as Irán marked its twenty years of the Islamic Republic, and step-by-step, paves a new road to diplomacy and the free world, the Bahá'ís in Irán find themselves trapped in the center of ordeals and obstacles on every side. Resolution after resolution, investigations and special commissions, one and all have agreed on the urgent and dire case of the Bahá'ís in Irán. A special report on the Bahá'ís in Irán to the fifty-third Session of the Commission on Human Rights, submitted on 1 April 1997, summarizes the persecutions suffered and urges the international community to pay "urgent attention" to this situation (BIC OPI, 1996-97, pp. 147-156). However, the situation still remains to be addressed. An early 1999 report by a United Nations Human Rights investigator stated the following: "Members of Irán's Bahá'í community, which numbers between 300,000 and 350,000, face discrimination that is apparently 'geared to destroying them as a community'" (Reuters on-line, 1999). While reports as these continue to surround the on-going persecution of the Bahá'ís, the words of historian William McNeill, reminds us that this persecution in Irán can be seen as indeed a renaissance of what befell humanity at the dawn of every divine revelation. The Bahá'ís in Irán have faced oppression and injustice in the name of religion for more than a century. As early Christians and Muslims are remembered today with respect and admiration, the Iranian Bahá'ís may well be cherished for their sacrifices of life and liberty. Let us pray that the hearts of the citizens of the world will turn to their cause, while they are still alive.