Israel is the last country where an Iranian raised in a Muslim family would have expected to find a place to feel at home. But that’s exactly what happened when I visited.
In January 2013, I spent a day as a guest at the Baha’i World Centre in Haifa. The site is the spiritual and administrative heart of the Baha’i Faith, a religion founded in Iran with about five million adherents across the globe. The center’s grounds are bedecked with gardens and terraces. As I walked up and down the beautiful landscape, it struck me that everything about that hallowed place is Iranian. Even though I was in Israel, I felt as though I was walking in a Persian garden.
The Baha’i faith is generally described as the largest non-Muslim religious minority in Iran. The faithful espouse noble principles like the importance of unifying humanity, the harmony between science and religion, and the equality of women and men. But, as the religion was founded after Islam, the Iranian government finds the faith’s adherents’ existence intolerable. Despite facing a longstanding state-sponsored campaign of oppression by Tehran, the community has found a way to persist.
Before the international community exerted pressure on Iran in the 1980s, Baha’is were killed indiscriminately by vigilantes and often arbitrarily executed by the government. Today, that persecution has cooled to arbitrary imprisonments and arrests. Baha’is also see their economic advancement blocked, sometimes by being denied access to higher education. The continuation of this systemic and baseless campaign against the Baha’is makes me ashamed to be Iranian.
After I left the Baha’i World Centre, I kept imagining that one day—perhaps not in my lifetime—it would dawn on Iranian civil society and government officials that the institution in Haifa is a significant part of Iran’s religious-national heritage. I dreamed that one day Iranians of all religious persuasions could visit and experience the enlightened and sublime feeling of fellowship offered by the institution.
That day feels very far away. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom condemned several shameful recent actions by the Iranian government against the Baha’is. Notably, in October, an Iranian court acquitted 11 people who had demolished the homes of 27 Baha’is in the small farming village of Ivel. The court found that there had been no wrongdoing, as it was illegal in the first place for Baha’is to own property.
As I empathize with my countrymen who have had their homes taken from them, I also think about all the other Baha’is of Iran. Do they feel at home in their own country, whose government has rejected them? And what of the Iranian Baha’is scattered around the world, many of whom left Iran as refugees, persecuted by their government to the point that they had to leave the country? In what way is Iran a home to them?
Ivel lies in the northern province of Mazandaran, which also happens to be the ancestral home of Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i Faith, who was born in 1817. He too was forced by the government to leave Iran. He died as a prisoner of the Ottoman Empire in Akka, then Palestine, in 1892. The gardens I visited on my trip to Israel are the result of Baha’u’llah’s long exile. Like his followers over more than a century into the future, he could find no home in Iran.
As I stood in the Baha’i gardens of Haifa, looking out over the Mediterranean, I felt part of something bigger than that moment in time. I was taking in something uniquely Persian—a precious piece of culture, heritage and history that should be honored and celebrated by all Iranians. And every Baha’i in Iran carries a part of this same precious culture, heritage and history. How long will the Iranian government continue to deny it to us?
Mr. Afshari is a professor of history emeritus at Pace University.
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Appeared in the February 19, 2021, print edition.
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