BY: Ahmed Shaheed
Political, social, or cultural circumstances produce challenging obstacles to implementing human rights commitments in every country.
One such issue in Iran is that of the persecuted Baha’i minority. Adherents of the Baha’i Faith are typically denied the right to publicly or privately manifest their beliefs. Members of the community also often report discrimination in employment, denial of the right to higher education, imprisonment, and desecration of their cemeteries.
The targeting of Baha’is is not news for those engaged in human rights issues in Iran, but in many ways, the rise in the diversity of voices in Iran in recognition of the plight of the Baha’i community is a new and welcomed development.
Over the past year, there have been some alarming actions taken against Baha’is, accompanied by concerning state-sponsored media initiatives appearing to target the group. Ataollah Rezvani, a Baha’i, was murdered in Bandar Abbas in August 2013 in an apparently religiously-motivated crime, and members of a Baha’i family were attacked and stabbed in their home in February 2014 by a masked intruder. In December 2013, state TV broadcasted nationally a six-part documentary about the Baha’i community entitled “Meet the Darkness”, detailing the alleged “relationship between the misguided sect of Baha’ism and Israel, and the influence of the Baha’is on the sinister Pahlavi [former Shah’s] family.”
This apparent resurgence in incitement by authorities to targeting the Baha’i community has been accompanied, however, by a promising increase in the frequency of statements and expressions of solidarity with Baha’is by other Iranians. For example, last month Ayatollah Masoumi-Tehrani presented artwork featuring sacred Baha’i passages as “an expression of sympathy and care from me and on behalf of all my open-minded fellow citizens”. Just last week, a group of prominent rights activists, journalists, and clerics met in a publicized group meeting to sign declarations and give statements in support of the imprisoned Baha’i leadership, known as the Yaren, who have been detained since 2008.
The significance of these developments cannot be overstated. These acts, carried out in a context where Baha’is are still often labeled as “impure” by state officials, have created a new space for dialogue. As prominent lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh said at the aforementioned meeting, “We are here together because the Baha’i community was oppressed and our mothers and fathers did not pay attention to this matter.” Mohammad Nourizad, a former journalist for the semi-official Kayhan newspaper, said in the meeting that, “Before I went to prison, I was weighed down by prejudice. But after I was freed from prison, the heavy weight of prejudice was lifted from me and my outlook has changed.”
I hope the brave outspokenness of these individuals will inspire other like-minded individuals to raise their voices in support of their fellow citizens of Iran. While important efforts outside of Iran are ensuring that member states are aware of the human rights situation, the Government and citizens of Iran will ultimately have to take ownership of any new way forward, and the first step in this process is creating a space for dialogue. After all, Baha’is are one of many religious and ethnic groups comprising the extraordinarily rich tapestry that is Iranian culture and history.