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Baha'is have rights too

Baha'is have rights too... - President Khatami

November 1999, (Iranian Human Rights Working Group) -- President Khatami's pronouncement, in his Paris press conference on Friday 29th October, on the plight of Baha'is in Iran is by far the most encouraging statement made by an Iranian high official of the Islamic Republic in this regard since the demise of the provisional government of Mehdi Bazargan in 1979. However, his statement fell far short of acknowledging the basic rights to religious freedom enshrined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which Iran is a state signatory.

Baha'is are the single most persecuted religious minority in Iran (followed, by a large margin, by the Jews). They have never been recognised by the mainstream religious and political authorities as a religious community - though they were commonly tolerated before the 1979 revolution. However, soon after the revolution, a large-scale hate campaign was launched against this community by the authorities, resulting in death, destruction and sufferings for a large section of the community. Well over 200 Baha'is have been executed (ostensibly on charges ranging from espionage to apostasy), hundreds more have been detained, tortured or sentenced to long imprisonment, thousands have been harassed to eviction, loss of property or jobs or driven out of the country, while the rest of the community have been denied of their rights to employment, education, election, property or religious practice.

In answer to a question about the persecution of the Baha'is, Mr. Khatami declared that "nobody should be persecuted because of their beliefs" and that he would defend the civil rights of ALL Iranians regardless of their beliefs or religion. He however, sought to justify the denial of the rights of Baha'is to practice their religion on the grounds that the Constitution has declared only four religions as recognised to the exclusion of the Baha'is.

The Constitution of the Islamic Republic is a collection of contradictory sets of rights and privileges accorded to various sections of the society. While in article 19 it declares all the Iranian people enjoy "the same rights irrespective of their colour, race, language and the likes (sic)", it goes on in many other parts to apportion rights on the basis of religion, religious credentials or what it calls "Islamic criteria" - contravening many of the articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The reference to the Constitution by the President begs the question of how at the same time he could reconcile this with his emphasis that NO citizen will be denied of their civil rights or that he sees as his duty to guarantee these rights to all citizens "no matter what their beliefs". At any rate, the declaration by the president in regards to the Baha'is, taken at face value, implies that the they should no longer be deprived of their civil rights such as jobs, education and owning property. This, if implemented properly, will mean a significant change of direction in the policies of the Islamic Republic, and a great reduction in the long list of injustices suffered by members of this community. For instance, Bahai children should no longer be barred from state schools and institutions of higher education - even though they may have to sit at Islamic classes as part of their course or go through anti-Bahai propaganda at schools. This is because the President's pledge would not extend to freedom of religion, and religious association, practice, worship and observance recognised as basic human rights by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It appears that in the vocabulary of the President, civil rights do not include the right to observe one's religion.

The resort to the provisions in the Constitution by President Khatami to justify denial of the religious status for the Baha'is could perhaps be interpreted as a mild criticism of the Constitution that it has failed to include the Bahai faith as a recognised religion. But such a criticism is beyond the point: recognition of a religion as official by the state, to the inevitable exclusion of some other religions, is in itself an act of discrimination on the grounds of beliefs and a recipe for religious intolerance. It is the right of citizens to adhere to a set of beliefs (a religion) and the state has no right whatsoever to determine which set of beliefs are acceptable for its citizens. The problem is, therefore, not why the Iranian Constitution has not named the Bahai faith as a recognised religion, but that it has named any at all. Naming one or more religions in a constitution as being recognised, not only discriminates against adherents of other religions at the time, but it also precludes the formation of any other religious communities in the future - a fact that bares the constitution of its basic characters of universality (covering all) and endurance (being future-proof). It was revealing of the degree that President Khatami understands this basic principle when in the same interview he criticised the French Constitution for not recognising Islam as an official religion!

The Constitution of the Islamic Republic, in naming four recognised religions, has further violated some basic human rights by institutionalising a system of religious apartheid. It restricts the right to representation on religious lines, declaring that each individual is allowed to vote for a nominee of their own faith. As a result, adherents of (recognised) minority religions are destined to electoral ghettos. This is in direct contravention of the internationally recognised standards of election laws and specifically Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In short, the religious discrimination provisioned in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic has all the hallmarks of an apartheid system: declaring an official religion for the land with all civil and political rights for its followers, few second-class religions with some rights for their adherents and token presence in the political structure, and all others as being non-religions with anyone associated with them regarded as non-persons. This bears a startling resemblance to that other bastion of apartheid, South Africa of pre-Mandela era with a constitution identifying three classes of people: whites, coloured and blacks. And as with South Africa experience, only with removing all references to religion in the Constitution, and guaranteeing equality of all citizens, can one see that the civil and human rights of the Baha'is in Iran are restored as well as those of followers of all other religions.


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