What Is the Future of Religious Diversity in a Region Dominated by Iran?

I recently sat down with a successful Iranian writer who resides in New York and Tehran. He publishes on the politics of the regime, its future and the possibilities for democracy. I was hoping to visit Iran at the time, home of my birth, to get a chance to see firsthand the impact of the elections uprisings and whether the movement had really been squashed completely as it seemed. Mostly curious, eager to cover a pressing story and see the country that expelled my family 20 years ago, I asked him to meet me in a very trendy café in NoLita.

Over coffee and pastries he was very optimistic that I should have no problems coming in and leaving, even as a journalist covering the elections, things were not so bad he said. His writing reflected a realist and positive view on Iran's political development. "Things are changing, the government is changing," I've heard him explain more than once to crowds at book signings.

I didn't want to press him too much but I had a specific concern: What if I am a Baha'i?

"Can you be proven to be a Baha'i?" He asked, "By the authorities in Iran?"

I told him I had published a story once in an interfaith college newsletter in undergrad that mentioned in the tagline that I was a member of the Baha'i faith.

"Then no, you can't go. Get that article off the server at the college before you ever think of going."

The threat facing the Baha'is of Iran has been a slow simmer that has in recent years begun to boil. This past June, the homes of 50 Baha'i families were razed in the town of Ivel, in Mazandaran province. Amateur video, shot on mobile telephones and posted on the Internet capture the homes being leveled and burned in the northern town.

This Sunday, seven Baha'is have quietly disappeared into the ether of Iran's human rights record sentenced each to 20 years in prison for practicing a faith that is not recognized by the Islamic Republic of Iran. This seven in particular represented the administrative leadership of the nation's community.

Accused of espionage, propaganda activities against the Islamic order, and the establishment of an illegal administration, among other allegations, they have been held -two women and five men- in Tehran's Evin prison since they were arrested in May 2008.

Their incarceration received some attention when Roxanne Saberi referred to being held with the two women, Fariba Kamalabadi and Mahvash Sabet, from the group of seven during her own incarceration. Saberi described that as she was being driven away from Evin upon her release, she cried "tears of sorrow for the many innocent prisoners I was leaving behind." But sadly with only six brief court appearances beginning in January and very limited access to their defense counsel, the case of the seven Baha'i leaders has slipped largely unnoticed by major reporting.

Which is exactly as Iran's leadership would like it to be. With the attention of the world seized on its nuclear program and its relationship to groups like Hizbollah and Hamas, it's no wonder that Iran's domestic policies garner little reaction.

Ultimately, the Baha'is of Iran would not be the first vulnerable community whose plight would slip behind larger world policy issues. But the impunity in which Iran gains advances against religious freedom does raise alarm for the region as a whole. Iran is aware that it has the global human rights community in a death grip, its larger campaigns occupy the international spotlight allowing it to continue to make gains against religious diversity in the region, a region where religious intolerance has made it a tinderbox for violence on the largest scale.

The way in which the arrest, trials and sentencing of the seven Baha'is in Tehran passed quietly by, confirms Iran's confidence that the world has failed to notice that the injustice that Iran commits against a few is intrinsically related to the intolerant threats it makes abroad.

As the 300,000 member faith suffocates slowly in it's own birth land, only those who have experienced modern Iran know the grim reality the Baha'is in Iran are facing.

Iran is changing, but for the Baha'is of Iran, whose adherents advocate non-violence and obedience to one's government, change is not coming soon enough. And while the world waits with optimism that sanctions will do the trick, Iran gets to continue with business as usual.

"I really wouldn't go if I were you," my colleague warned, "If they find out you're a Baha'i and arrest you, there isn't really anything anyone can do for you."

Sadly, the seven sentenced in Tehran, and their government, know all too well how true that is.