Religious minorities in Iran

Baha'is repressed and persecuted by the state

It's no secret that the Baha'i community in Iran is persecuted. Now, a document has come to light that appears to show the extent to which the repression is state-sponsored. By Matthias von Hein

The two-page document is potentially explosive. Experts believe it shows the minutes taken during a meeting on 21 September of last year in the northern Iranian city of Sari. According to the document, during the gathering, senior officials from a number of provincial authorities agreed to pursue a systematic policy of persecution against Iran's largest non-Muslim religious minority: the Baha'is.

The Baha'i faith emerged in Iran in the middle of the nineteenth century. Today it has some five million members worldwide.

Responding to a written enquiry from DW, Bärbel Kofler, the German government's human rights commissioner, said that in their Iranian homeland the Baha'is are, "the worst treated minority in terms of their human and political rights. They're viewed as a sectarian political group and persecuted accordingly."

At the mercy of the state

That persecution appears to be nothing less than official government policy. That, at least, is the conclusion that could be drawn from the paper, which was leaked to DW.

According to the document, 19 representatives of key Iranian agencies, including the intelligence services and the police, as well as state authorities responsible for business, commerce and education, gathered for a meeting of the so-called Commission for Ethnic Groups, Sects and Religions in the province of Mazandaran. The stated aim: "To gain control over the misguided movement of the perverse Baha'i sect."

The document leaked to DW (photo: DW)
According to experts, the document leaked to DW (pictured above) shows the minutes of a meeting on 21 September of last year in the northern Iranian city of Sari. The stated aim of the meeting of the so-called Commission for Ethnic Groups, Sects and Religions in the province of Mazandaran was "to gain control over the misguided movement of the perverse Baha'i sect"

The Iranian embassy in Berlin has not responded to an official enquiry by DW concerning the persecution of the Baha'is.

DW has shared the document with the London-based Minority Rights Group (MRG), which is also active in Iran. MRG Executive Director Joshua Castellino says the notes from the meeting are shocking: "It suggests that a concerted strategy has been put in place, in which a government authority gives orders to a whole range of other agencies concerning the persecution of the Baha'i community."

Wolfgang Kaleck of the ECCHR, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin, who also saw the document, points out that a number of different UN agencies are looking into the massive discrimination against the Baha'is. According to Kaleck, Iran usually sidesteps allegations, "pointing instead to 'various tendencies and groupings in Iranian society' who find the Baha'i offensive."

"But now, this new document appears to show that at least at provincial level, wide-ranging instructions have been issued on how to enforce the exclusion of Baha'is from public life," he said.

Court-sanctioned land grabs 

One example of what that means on the ground is the village of Ivel in Mazandaran Province. In many ways, Ivel is a village just like any other. The difference is, however, that it is home to one of the oldest Baha'i communities in Iran. That is, it was home to Baha'is until they were driven out of Ivel, their houses destroyed, and their land and fields confiscated.

The expulsion began in 1983, just a few years after the Islamic Revolution. Trucks and bulldozers moved in. Fifty houses were destroyed. Just a few months ago – shortly after the now-documented meeting in the provincial capital of Sari – the land grabs were declared legal by the courts.

The site of a Baha'i cemetery in Iran that was razed to the ground (photo: Baha'i Persecution in Iran)
In some cases, the comprehensive persecution of the Baha'i minority in Iran continues even after death. Pictured here: a Baha'i cemetery in Iran that was razed to the ground

In late February, the Baha'i took to social media, using the hashtag #ItsTheirLand, to draw attention to the confiscation of their land and property. The response to the protest was global.

Human Rights Commissioner Kofler believes that the COVID-19 pandemic has only served to "aggravate still further the political, economic and social discrimination of Baha'is." The German government's second Report on International Religious Freedom, published last October, said that the estimated 300,000 members of Iran's Baha'i community "are collectively dismissed as 'heretics' and charged with being a threat to the state."

Repression beyond the grave

Speaking to DW, Professor Heiner Bielefeldt said that Baha'is have also been executed in Iran, particularly during the first years of the Islamic Republic. From 2010 to 2016, Bielefeldt was UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief with a specific focus on the Baha'i community. He concluded that the persecution of Baha'is extended to all areas of their existence: "And it even continues after their death, including the deliberate destruction of cemeteries using steam rollers. This was not a case of individuals daubing graffiti on gravestones. This was about razing whole cemeteries to the ground."

Bielefeldt describes "systematic, state-sponsored persecution in all areas of life," with the objective of, "uprooting and eradicating the Baha'i faith."

He has, however, observed that "there are those in Iranian society who do not toe the official line. What we're seeing is very harsh repression carried out by state authorities that does not, however, necessarily go hand in hand with social repression." This is borne out by the fact that individual Shia clerics – such as Hassan Yousefi Eshkevari, who is currently living in exile in Germany – have given their backing to the protests against the land grab in Ivel.

Professor Heiner Bielefeldt (photo: Harald Sippel)
Professor Heiner Bielefeldt (UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief 2010–2016) says that the Baha'is in Iran experience "systematic, state-sponsored persecution in all areas of life," the objective of which is to uproot and eradicate the Baha'i faith. He has, however, observed that "there are those in Iranian society who do not toe the official line. What we're seeing is very harsh repression carried out by state authorities that does not, however, necessarily go hand in hand with social repression"

Supporting others

At the same time, Bielefeldt says that although the Baha'i people are under such acute pressure themselves, they not only campaign for their own rights but also for those of others. One session of the UN Human Rights Council clearly left a deep impression: "What happened was that the Baha'i representative in Geneva spoke out on behalf of persecuted Shia minorities in Saudi Arabia and parts of South-East Asia."

Iran, with its large Shia majority, was not happy. As Kofler explains: "Iran flouts the right to religious freedom, which Teheran itself pledged to defend when it signed the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights."

That was back in 1975, four years before the revolution. Iran's present-day constitution does not, however, recognise the right to religious freedom. Alongside Shia Islam, it lists a number of tolerated minorities, including Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism, but not the Baha'i faith.

Matthias von Hein

© Deutsche Welle 2021

More on this topic