Baha'is in Iran are Easily Forgotten

Sadly, the intense publicity surrounding Wikileaks diverts attention from serious injustice and continuing human rights violations. A good example is the state-sponsored persecution of Baha'is in Iran.
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Wikileaks has revealed government and diplomatic violations of the truth while paradoxically keeping their own sources secret. In the process, editor in chief and whistleblower Julian Assange has become a hero for human rights defenders. Sadly, the intense publicity surrounding Wikileaks diverts attention from serious injustice and continuing human rights violations, some already on the back burner and badly neglected. A good example is the state-sponsored persecution of Baha'is in Iran.

The 300,000-strong Baha'i community, the largest religious minority in Iran, represents less than 1% of the population. Over the past 30 years, they have suffered torture and execution. They have been denied tertiary education and government jobs, their shops and properties are often seized, cemeteries desecrated and children harassed at school. In addition, Bahai's are facing stepped-up persecution and have been falsely blamed for organizing and inciting anti-government protests although they abstain from partisan political activity on religious principles. Charges against them include espionage, "propaganda activities against the Islamic order" and "corruption on earth," the latter a capital offence. Baha'i communities around the world insist these charges are spurious and part of a campaign to scapegoat members of the faith.

During the Shah's era, Baha'is strove for education and became successful and prominent, creating envy and suspicion, and although police sometimes protected them against Islamic extremists, they were victims of periodic outbreaks of violence.

A major source of ideological friction with Islam is the doctrine of a hierarchy of traditions that subsumes previous ones. According to Baha'is, the Prophet Mohammad was not the last prophet but one in a progressive line, and the next one is not due for a thousand years!

Women's rights are central to Baha'i teaching and in stark contrast to the discriminatory sharia laws implemented by the Islamic Republic of Iran. These rights include full support for the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

There are numerous documented stories of violent arrests and incarcerations in the hundreds of prisons situated in basements of houses in Tehran.

Rozita Vasseghi is a Baha'i prisoner. In Kafkaesque fashion, a man claiming to be a 'postman' arrested her three years ago after a knock on the door, and during repeated interrogations while blindfolded, her captors threatened her with death. Throughout her ordeal, she was denied a lawyer. Following release from prison, she found a job but government authorities exerted pressure on her employers to have her fired. A few years later, she was arrested at her home, and for the next six months, found herself in solitary confinement. Her elderly mother, who was allowed visits of only five minutes, was horrified by her wasted appearance. Accused of insulting Islam, acting against national security and teaching the Baha'i religion, she is serving a five-year sentence.

Rozita's sister Rosa, suffered multiple incarcerations before escaping Iran. She was on her way home in a shared public taxi when the driver asked about her religion. Discovering she was a Baha'i, he stopped and made a phone call. A car with several people soon showed up, the women fully covered in chadors. Rosa was blindfolded and forced into the vehicle and when they reached their destination, she was thrown onto the pavement, her hands were tied and she was dragged down stairs to a room and beaten. Her captors repeatedly called her an infidel and declared her blood would be impure until she renounced her faith and converted to Islam. Over several years, she was repeatedly arrested and imprisoned.

As proponents of a religion originating from Islam, stamped by modernity, universal human rights and compatibility with many Western values, Baha'is are vulnerable targets for persecution by the Iranian theocracy. Baha'i women are doubly at risk, being female and Baha'i, and as victims of severe injustice, they deserve more outrage and support than Assange and Wikileaks.

Ida Lichter is the author of Muslim Women Reformers: Inspiring Voices Against Oppression, published by Prometheus Books, New York.

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