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House of Baha'u'llah in Baghdad:
Case before the League of Nations

by National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of 'Iraq

1928-11-11
Text of the Petition
To the Permanent Mandates Commission of the League of Nations
From the Bahá'ís of ‘Iráq
To The Permanent Mandates Commission of The League of Nations

In conformity with the provisions of Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations, placing the well-being of the peoples of Mandated Territories under the protection of the League, your petitioners respectfully appeal to you for protection and aid in their grievous suffering through the invasion of their right to complete freedom of religious belief and freedom to practice forms of worship in accordance with their customs; a right guaranteed by the enlightened conscience of civilized mankind and by the specific provisions of the Mandates of the League; of Article 3 of the Treaty of October 10th, 1922, between His Britannic Majesty and His Majesty the King of ‘Iráq, and of Articles 6 and 13 of the Organic Law of ‘Iráq. (Cf. Annex No. 1.)

Your petitioners and their fellow believers in all parts of the world are followers of the spiritual teaching of Bahá’u’lláh (1817-1892), Whom they look to and revere as the One Whom Siyyid ‘Alí Muhammad, the Báb (18199-1850) had heralded as “He Whom God would make manifest”; a universal spiritual Teacher soon to appear, Who by the inspired understanding and power of His life and precepts would remove the differences separating the religions of the world today and usher in the era promised by them all of the ultimate spiritual unification of mankind.

In Bahá’u’lláh your petitioners recognize this universal Teacher. They believe Him to be the supreme Manifestation of God thus far revealed to the world: that in Him converges and finds expression the aspiration and belief of the devout Hindu, Confucianist, Zoroastrian, Buddhist, Jew, Christian and Muhammadan; the aspiration and belief that, in His good time, God would send to the world His Messenger, divinely inspired to reveal to all peoples His truth, to the end that, guided by this new understanding, they might unite in universal fellowship and establish His Kingdom in this world.

From this brief outline of the supreme spiritual station which Bahá’u’lláh occupies in the faith of your petitioners will be understood the sacred reverence felt by His followers for places associated with His ministry, places to them holy, and of a sacredness, dignity and vital importance in their religious life and worship equal to that of places of like significance in the religious life of the followers of other great spiritual Leaders of mankind.

One of the most sacred of these holy places, situated in Baghdád, your petitioners aver has been unlawfully wrested from their possession and they have been deprived of the spiritual solace and inspiration of its use in their worship. This it is alleged has been brought about through the machinations of the leaders of the Shí’ah Islám since the inception of this movement in Persian in 1844 to interfere with and prevent the freedom of belief and worship of your petitioners and their fellow believers throughout the world. It is against this alleged violation of their constitutional and treaty guarantees that your petitioners seek your aid and protection.

The holy place in question consists of dwelling houses in Baghdád occupied by Bahá’u’lláh and His family when they were driven into exile from Persia in 1852. For eleven years Bahá’u’lláh resided in these houses and at the close of this momentous period of His life, while still in Baghdád, He declared Himself to be the universal Teacher heralded by the Báb. Thus these houses embody associations peculiarly sacred to His followers and, in addition, Bahá’u’lláh Himself set them apart in His writings as a place of special significance in Bahá'í worship.

When Bahá’u’lláh came to Baghdád this property was owned by one of His followers. Later Bahá’u’lláh Himself acquired ownership of the houses. So bitter, however, was the feeling against Him among the Shí’ahs – who formed then as now a considerable and influential group in Baghdád – and so insecure was the protection afforded by the Government of ‘Iráq at that time, that it was not considered expedient that the property should be openly known as belonging to Him. Accordingly it has always been held in the name of some one of His followers. Also no use of the houses that might draw attention to their nature as a holy place was permitted by Bahá’u’lláh during the Turkish regime in ‘Iráq.

That this caution was not due to imaginary fears on the part of the Bahá'ís unhappily is only too clearly proven by the unbroken record of persecution, pillage, torture and death inflicted upon them by the Shí'ahs since the beginning of the mission of the Báb, who himself was martyred in Tabríz in 1850. History reveals no religious persecution more pitiless, more inhuman in the unspeakable tortures inflected, more devastating in its confiscation of private property and its ruthless taking of human life than this chapter – not yet closed – of Shí'ah determination to destroy the faith of your petitioners and their fellow believers. Mercifully, since the adoption in Persia of a constitution guaranteeing religious freedom and since the accession of the Pahlavi dynasty, conditions there have somewhat improved; but even as recently as July, 1926, eight Bahá'ís were brutally murdered in Jahrum and since then isolated instances of persecution in different parts of that country have continued to this day. Almost without exception in this long record of pillage and murder none of its perpetrators has been brought to justice, so powerful has been the influence of the Shí'ah leaders. Thus, fearing similar outbreaks against them in 'Iráq, where two of the most important centers of Shí'ah Islám are situated, the Bahá'ís in Baghdád since the days of Bahá'u'lláh had gathered together in private and made no public use of these sacred buildings.

After the Great War, however, the situation changed. Under the Covenant of the League of Nations 'Iráq was mandated to Great Britain. The treaty between Great Britain and 'Iráq and the Organic Law of 'Iráq followed, and, as pointed out in the opening paragraph of this petition, all three of these solemn instruments guarantee freedom from interference with their religious worship to all the peoples of 'Iráq. None welcomed this great step forward in the advancing civilization of 'Iráq with a more profound gratitude and eager hope than did the followers of Bahá'u'lláh. At last, after long years of enforced repression, they believed themselves free to express openly their cherished convictions and the deepest longings of their hearts.

At once 'Abd'ul-Bahá, eldest son of Bahá'u'lláh and leader of the Movement since his father’s death in 1892, gave instructions that the long neglected and unused property in Baghdád should be put in repair and made suitable for the use in their worship so long prayed for by the Bahá'ís. Considerable sums of money were expended for this by 'Abd'ul-Bahá – several thousand pounds. No sooner was this activity openly begun, however, than the still smouldering fire of fanatical hatred of the Bahá'ís burst into flame once more among the Shí'ah leaders and a plot was set in motion by them to seize for themselves these monuments to precious to the Bahá'ís and thus deprive the Bahá'ís for evermore of their use as a holy place.

But, under the new political status of 'Iráq, resort to the method of open attack, followed so long and so successfully where no restraint by the State authorities was to be feared, was not possible. More subtle means were adopted. The courts of 'Iráq were made the instruments of their purpose.

Your petitioners will not go into the details of the long litigation which ended in the success of the Shí'ah plot and the deprivation of the Bahá'ís from any further enjoyment of their property through a decision of the Court of Appeals of 'Iráq. These details are set out fully in a memorandum of the case and in the majority and dissenting opinions of the Court of Appeals embraced in Annex No. 2 hereto attached. Your petitioners feel, however, that it is important to note here that the decision of the Court of Appeals was reached by a divided court, in which the British Presiding Justice dissented from the finding of his four native associates; and also to draw attention to certain salient points in the litigation bearing upon the claim of your petitioners that the suit, though brought, as will appear, in the names of private individuals, was actually instigated by the Shí'ahs.

The proceedings were begun by obtaining an order from the Shí'ah Qádí of the Sharí’ah Courts, stating that the last owner of record of the property in question had died intestate and without heirs. Upon this order an ex parte application was made to the same Shí'ah Qádi for an appointment of a Shí'ah Trustee to seize the property, take it over and administer it. Fortunately the agent in charge of the premises for 'Abd'ul-Bahá and acting under his instructions was able to defeat this attach by an appeal to the Government authorities, who intervened and had the court proceedings quashed on the ground that if the lawful owner of the property had died intestate and without heirs the property then would escheat to the State and that the Sharí’ah Courts, consequently, had no jurisdiction to appoint trustees. Thus this first attempt by the Shí'ahs ended in failure. Shortly afterward, however, a new attach was made.

This time again an order was obtained from the same Shí'ah Qádi. Curiously, however, this order stated as fact the exact and reverse of the previous order granted by the same Qádi. This new order declared that the self-same deceased, referred to in the previous order as having died without heirs, died with heirs, then deceased in turn, but through whom succeeded two heirs, brother and sister, then living. And the testimony of a number of witnesses who at the first hearing had sworn that there were no heirs of the cedeased owner of record was accepted as valid by the Qádi on this second application when these same witnesses completely forswore their former testimony and now testified that this brother and sister were the heirs of the deceased. Upon this new order was based an application to the Baghdád Peace Court for the eviction of the defendants from the property in favor of these newly discovered alleged heirs. This was not a court of competent jurisdiction of the subject matter of the case, which the Shí'ahs well knew, and the decision again went against them. But they cleverly used the trial as a basis for creating public opinion against the Bahá'ís and of raising a political issue through which they forced the Government to take an attitude that it is difficult to consider as other than hostile to the Bahá'ís.

By this intervention of the Government in the Court proceedings the Bahá'ís were deprived of their property in the summer of 1922, never again regaining possession of it, though their legal right to it was unquestionable until the doubtful decision of the Court of Appeals late in 1925. In the meantime this attitude taken by the Government greatly embarrassed and weakened the Bahá'ís and added corresponding assurance and strength to the Shí'ahs.

Finally an action was brought in the civil Court of First Instance of Baghdád. This action was based upon the second order of the Shí'ah Qádi, as in the case brought before the Peace Court; the same alleged heirs were named as plaintiffs and it was again sought to have them adjudicated the lawful owners of the property and so to oust the representative of 'Abd'ul-Bahá and the Bahá'ís from possession. This application was also denied, chiefly on the ground that the Bahá'í representative had been in undisputed possession of the property for more than the fifteen years required by the law of 'Iráq to establish the right to possession as against any adverse claimant.

On appeal from this ruling, however, the Court of Appeals by a majority decision, the British Presiding Justice dissenting, reversed the finding of the lower court and decreed the plaintiffs the lawful owners of the premises, basing its decision largely upon the second order of the Shí'ah Qadi above referred to, the contradictory order affirming that the plaintiffs were the lawful heirs of the last owner of record of the property.

Your petitioners believe that a careful reading of the record of the court proceedings as set forth in the papers of Annex No. 2 will support their own view that, even on the merits of the case, the majority opinion of the Court of Appeals has resulted in a grave miscarriage of justice and that the dissenting opinion of Justice Alexander, the British Presiding Justice of the Court, represents the sound and equitable conclusion from the facts before the Court. But your petitioners would again point out that it is not their purpose in this petition to discuss the decision of the Court of Appeals, save only as to those features of it which, in the opinion of your petitioners, so clearly point to their contention that the entire proceeding was brought in bad faith, with the real purpose of harassing the Bahá'í Community, not at all to establish the rights of parties unjustly deprived of their property.

Immediately after execution of the judgment of the Court of Appeals the victorious plaintiffs in the action created a Shí'ah waqf of the premises in favor of a Shí'ah shrine of pilgrimage, and the buildings have become the gathering place of Shí'ah pilgrims known as Husayniyyih.

There is thus this sequence of events in the record:

    The uninterrupted persecution of the Bahá'ís by the Shí'ahs from the days of the Báb, the forerunner of the movement, in 1844.
    The sacred character to the Bahá'ís of the property in Baghdád.
    The long private occupation and uncontested control of the property by representative of the Bahá'ís.
    The open acknowledgment by the Bahá'ís of its ownership and preparations for its use by them as a place of worship as soon as protection in their worship was guaranteed under the Mandate for 'Iráq.
    The immediate attempt by the Shí'ahs to seize the property and to have Shí'ah trustees appointed to take charge of it upon the basis of an order issued by the Shí'ah Qádi stating that the last owner of record of the property had died without heirs.
    The failure of this attempt through intervention of the State, claiming the right of escheat in property of a deceased person having no heirs.
    The further attempt to seize the property through suits brought in the Baghdád Peace Court and in the civil Court of First Instance, on the basis of an order issued by the same Shí'ah Qádi stating that the last owner of record of the property had died leaving heirs and naming the heirs, in flat contradiction of the order issued by him a short time before.
    The failure of the Peace Court action, and the decision of the Court of First Instance in favor of the defendant Bahá'ís, mainly on the ground that the alleged heirs plaintiffs had done nothing to assert their alleged rights for a period extending far beyond the statutory time barring such claims against an occupant claiming ownership.
    Appeal by the plaintiffs to the Court of Appeals.
    Decision by a majority of the Court of Appeals, the British Presiding Justice dissenting, reversing the decision of the lower court and awarding the property to the alleged heirs plaintiffs chiefly on the bases of the second, contradictory order of the Shí'ah Qádi.
    No pretense, even by the successful plaintiffs of enjoying the ownership of their newly acquired property themselves, but their immediate dedication of the premises as a Shí'ah waqf.
    The complete success of the Shí'ah plot to interfere with the worship of the Bahá'ís by seizing from them and obtaining control of these sacred buildings.
Two of these events are so important and bear so directly upon the claim of your petitioners that it is felt they awarrant a closer examination, - the two contradictory orders of the Shí'ah Qádi. Concerning these the British Presiding Justice says in his dissenting opinion:
“Indeed, I go further and hold that this court when shown two different orders, one declaring no heirs existed and another that an heir did exist, is entitled to say that it cannot say which is the right order, and may therefore reject the claim in default of the plaintiff forthwith proving the matter in the proper religious court.”

(Cf. last paragraph, page 4, Dissenting Opinion – Annex No. 2.)

Yet the second of these orders thus characterized by the British Presiding Justice was accepted as competent by the majority of the Court without further proofs and forms the foundation upon which this litigation rests. But it will be remembered that this second order was sought only after the first attempt of the Shí'ahs to obtain control of the property had failed. Can it reasonably be doubted that if they had succeeded in having a Shí'ah trustee appointed to take over and manage this property under the first order of the Shí'ah Qádi that these alleged heirs created by his second order would never have been heard of? Previous to this second order they had had no existence whatsoever in relation to the property. Neither they nor their ancestors intervening between them and the last owner of record of the premises had ever made the slightest claim to its proprietorship during the many years of its well-known occupation by the representatives of Bahá'u'lláh and His family, although one of them, at least, lived in its immediate neighborhood. They are brought into being only after the complete failure of the Shí'ah plan without them. And – important to note – instantly the plot finally succeeds and the property is wrested from the Bahá'ís, the houses become a Shí'ah waqf. Thus the fruits of the victory gained in the name of these plaintiffs and ostensibly on their behalf are never enjoyed by them but pass at once into the hands of the Shí'ahs, and these alleged heirs again sink into the oblivion in relation to the property where they had always been until the dilemma of the Shí'ahs called them forth. Their entire life as the alleged lawful owners of the property is measured exactly by the Shí'ah need of them in the execution of their purpose. It is submitted that the suspicion with which the British Presiding Justice regarded these two orders of the Shí'ah Qádi was well founded; that they are inexplicable excepting as they form another link in the long, unbroken chain of Shí'ah persecution of the Bahá'ís and that, coupled with the other undisputed facts of the record, they fully justify the charge of your petitioners that their constitutional right to freedom of religious worship has been made a mockery, and that the courts of their country, the very bulwarks designed for their protection, have been used against them for their oppression.

In addition to the evidence in support of this contention afforded by the legal record of the case itself, the outward accompanying facts that surrounded the litigation from its inception offer strong corroborative proof. In the proceedings before the two informal courts where the first attempts to secure their end were made, the Shí'ahs crowded the courtroom and through menacing gestures and speech exerted their utmost efforts to intimidate and influence the court; and throughout the case powerful pressure was brought to bear by the Shí'ahs upon its issue through political channels, the press and other means of publicity. Finally, direct intimidation of the eminent counsel employed by your petitioners to defend their cause was resorted to and so insistent and so alarming did these threats against his personal safety become that he at length felt obliged in self-defense to withdraw from the case at a moment most critical for the interests of your petitioners. Under these circumstances other counsel was secured with difficulty at the last moment, and in spite of his courage and devotion to the interests of your petitioners the presentation of their cause was severely handicapped.

Also, your petitioners feel that the attitude of the Mandatory Power since the decision of the Court of Appeals is a vindication of the justice of their claim. Appeal for aid in the intolerable situation created by the decision was at once made to his Excellency, the High Commissioner for 'Iráq, and by his Excellency the Secretary of State for the Colonies of his Britannic Majesty. Both of their Excellencies recognized the justice of the appeal and your petitioners are informed have brought strong pressure to bear to induce the Government of 'Iráq to remedy this grievous wrong. Your petitioners also have reason to believe that, through the representations of them to their Excellencies, the 'Iráq Government recognize the justice of your petitioners’ claim.

A letter dated 9th February 1927, addressed from the office of his Excellency the Secretary of State for the Colonies of the Mandatory Power to the representative of your petitioners, reads in part:

“I very much regret that we are still not in a position to let you know that a satisfactory solution of the Bahá'í question has been reached.

“The matter is under active consideration by the new Cabinet in 'Iráq, but they have not yet arrived at a decision. In a letter addressed to the High Commissioner on the 12th of January, the 'Iráq Prime Minister expressed the hope that he would be ‘able to effect an early settlement of this question.’

“Sir H. Dobbs, in reply to an inquiry, has assured me that he has been pressing the new Cabinet ever since his return to 'Iráq.

“He adds that he thinks that the Cabinet will really try to do something now, either to expropriate or to induce the Court of Cassation to review its judgment.

“May I add that I greatly appreciate the patience which you have shown in the face of hope so often deferred?”

None the less, the efforts of the Mandatory Power for nearly three years to induce the Government of 'Iráq to act have so far been futile and your petitioners are now informed by the Mandatory Power that it considers that its further action in the matter would be fruitless. In a subsequent letter, dated 7th May, 1928, from the office of his Excellency the Secretary of State for the Colonies of the Mandatory Power, it is stated:
“I have now learnt from Sir H. Dobbs the result of his conversation with King Feisal. It appears that he discussed the case with both the King and the Prime Minister. They expressed their great regret that, in the changed circumstances and in the face of constantly developing Shí'ah agitation, they see no prospect of being in a position to give effect to the arrangement agreed upon.

“On receipt of Sir H. Dobbs’ report I lost no time in submitting the whole case once more to the Secretary of State. Mr. Amery directs me to express to you his keen regret that, after a delay which must have been a severe trial to your patience, the negotiations should have reached so unsatisfactory an outcome. He feels, however, that it would be useless, for the present at any rate, to bring further pressure to bear upon King Feisal or the 'Iráq Government.”

Your petitioners believe that this ineffectiveness of the efforts of the Mandatory Power is due to the exceptional characteristics of the Mandate for 'Iráq. Under the terms of the treaty form of this mandate far greater independence is granted to the Mandated State than in the case of any other of the mandated territories. And your petitioners believe that it is because of its loyalty to the terms of this treaty that the Mandatory Power has felt unable to exercise that greater degree of pressure necessary to induce action in this matter by the Government of 'Iráq. Therefore your petitioners have regretfully felt compelled to appeal to the larger powers of supervision and control of the administration of Mandated Territories that have been entrusted to your body by the States Members of the League of Nations.

Not that it is sought to restrict in any manner the independence enjoyed by 'Iráq under its treaty with Great Britain. On the contrary, your petitioners are loyal citizens of 'Iráq and desire to see their country attain as speedily as possible to that more complete independence entitling it to a place as full member of the League of Nations. But it is felt that this degree of national stability cannot be attained while the courts of the State themselves can be utilized to further so flagrant a breach of the Organic Law of 'Iráq as has resulted in this instance. It is believed that the righting of this wrong and the institution of such measures as will make the recurrence of a like happening in the future impossible will redound, not only to the benefit of your petitioners and their fellow believers throughout the world, but also to the lasting benefit of 'Iráq itself, through the stabilization of its judicature and the consequently increased confidence in this department of its government among those States which still look with doubt upon its administration of justice.

Your petitioners are informed that the attitude of the Government of 'Iráq, vis-à-vis the representations of the Mandatory Power in this matter, is due to its unwillingness, for political reasons, to risk an affront to the powerful Shí'ah element among its constituents. It is submitted that such a consideration of temporary political expediency has little weight when balanced against a consideration of the permanent welfare of the State, as it is in this case where the courage and power of the Government to enforce the fundamental law of the State has been directly challenged. For more than three quarters of a century the followers of Bahá'u'lláh have suffered from the influence of Shí'ah Islám over courts and governments in States of backward civilization. Your petitioners feel assured that merely to suggest that this influence is to be allowed to insinuate itself into and corrupt the administration of justice in a State whose law and institutions are under the jurisdiction and control of the League of Nations is to refute any such possibility.

It has been intimated that open use of the building by the Bahá'ís for public worship might conduce to conflict with the Shí'ahs and possible riots and bloodshed and so be detrimental to public safety or order and contrary to the Organic Law. The followers of Bahá'u'lláh have always been known as peace-loving, industrious and law-abiding citizens wherever they are found, and their religious observances are of the simplest form – gatherings where alone prayers are recited, the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh and of the Prophets of the past read and explained, and refreshment and hospitality exchanged. By no possibility could these observances, in themselves, arouse antagonism. It is respectfully submitted that if there is danger of such peaceful practices becoming the object of fanatical attack and resulting disorder, it is the duty of the State to restrain the aggressors and to protect to the full extent of its power those conducting their observances in an entirely lawful manner. Otherwise, it is submitted, the very foundations of the State are in danger.

As to the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh constituting any just cause of attack, these teachings regard unity and peace among mankind as their very foundation, and embody principles that are in the forefront of the doctrines and practices of the most advanced civilizations of the world today. To an occidental student Bahá'u'lláh explained:

“We desire but the good of the world and the happiness of the nations; yet they deem us a stirrer up of strife and sedition worthy of bondage and punishment . . . that all nations should become one in faith and all men as brothers; that the bonds of affection and unity between the sons of men should be strengthened; that diversity of religion should cease, and differences of race be annulled . . . what harm is there in this? . . . Yet so it shall be; these fruitless strifes, these ruinous wars, shall pass away, and the ‘Most Great Peace’ shall come. . . Is not this that which Christ foretold? . . . Yet do we see your kings and rulers lavishing their treasures more freely on means for the destruction of the human race than on that which would conduce to the happiness of mankind. These strifes and this bloodshed must cease, and all men be as one kindred and one family. . . . Let not a man glory in this, that he loves his country; let him rather glory in this, that he loves his kind.”

(Cf. Annex No. 3 for further Bahá'í teachings.)

Your petitioners feel that they cannot close their appeal without again expressing their profound regret that it has become necessary to present their Government in an unfavorable light before the League of Nations, and rather than do so have suffered under this injustice for three years in the hope that it might be righted and such a measure so become unnecessary. They deplore having been obliged to lay open the sad history of Shí'ah persecution of the Bahá'ís. They bear no ill will toward the Shí'ahs but, on the contrary, desire to live beside them in peace and friendliness. They recognize that these persecutions find their motive in certain Shí'ah beliefs, though they cannot but maintain that such beliefs are an anachronism in a civilized community and in this instance have led to acts expressly forbidden by the law of 'Iráq. Alone the sacredness of its subject matter to your petitioners has compelled them most reluctantly to present this petition. They ask no favor. They seek only that the laws of their country be justly administered and that they be accorded the protection in their religious worship which those laws guarantee. They now leave their plea in your hands, confident that your high sense of justice and of responsibility of the League of Nations for the “well-being and development” of the peoples of mandated territories, “a sacred trust of civilization,” will lead you in your wisdom to recommend to the Council of the League a suitable remedy for this grave injustice and also the safeguards necessary to prevent for the future any similar offense against the laws of 'Iráq.
Respectfully submitted at Baghdád this eleventh day of September, 1928, through His Excellency, the High Commissioner for 'Iráq.

The National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of 'Iráq.

[See the League of Nations documents about this case.]
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