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Iran's war on Bahais

By Justin Huggler
The Independent
July 14, 2000

IN THE corner of one of Iran's many museums, a man steps into the shadows and tells of his life as a member of the Islamic Republic's most persecuted minority. One of his friends was beaten to death by vigilantes who never had to answer before the courts. The whole community was threatened with the same unless it renounced its religion. But, he says, things are getting better under the reforms of President Mohammad Khatami.

Musa Ahmadi - it is not his real name - is a Baha'i, a member of a faith that originated in Iran, and is today the largest religious minority in the country - but whose beliefs are regarded as blasphemy by the authorities.

"It is very difficult to live in a country where people are allowed to kill your friends and go unpunished," says Mr Ahmadi. "But we never renounced our faith. We have always spoken openly of our beliefs."

Mr Ahmadi got off lightly. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution he was stripped of his job - and his pension - as the regional manager of Iran's gas distribution company. "I had worked all my life to get that far, and they took it all away," he says. Now he drives a taxi.

His local Baha'i place of worship was given to an Islamic organisation as a branch office and is now draped with banners containing Islamic propaganda. Iran's 300,000 Baha'is have no places of worship left and meet to pray in their houses. The newsletters they receive from Baha'is around the world are carefully vetted by the authorities.

The Baha'i faith emerged in Iran in the 19th century, centred on the figure of Bah'ullah, whom Baha'is believe to be the successor in a line of prophets that included Christ and Mohamed. There are 6 million Baha'is around the world.

"We believe the same as the Shias," says Mr Ahmadi. "Except that we believe the 12th Imam has come - he was Baha'ullah." To Iran's Shia Muslims, who await the coming of the messianic 12th Imam, that is blasphemy, and the Baha'is are considered Muslims who have renounced their faith, and can be sentenced to death for apostasy.

To make matters worse, the Baha'is' most holy place is on Mount Carmel, in Israel. Though it was sacred to them before the creation of Israel - Baha'ullah was exiled there - and the religion has no links with Judaism, some members have been sentenced to death in Iran for "Zionist Baha'i activities".

Since 1979, more than 200 Baha'is have been killed in Iran, and 15 have disappeared. Baha'is have been imprisoned for teaching their religion, and holding meetings. They are only allowed to bury their dead in unmarked graves on waste ground. Baha'i marriages are not recognised by Iranian law.

The UN Human Rights Commission in 1993 published a document detailing plans to settle "the Baha'i question" so that Baha'i "progress and development shall be blocked", signed by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

President Khatami cannot do anything directly for the "apostates", because that would give his hardline opponents ammunition against him. But, says Mr Ahmadi, the President's insistence that the "rule of law" must prevail is making things better for the Baha'is. "Under Khatami, they have to follow the rule of law, so we are safer."

But not entirely safe. Eleven Baha'is are in prison in Iran for "crimes" such as holding a children's art exhibition, according to the Baha'i International Community. Four of them are sentenced to death.


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