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Interview'Spreading terror in the entire national community'

Baha’i UN envoy: Iran carrying out ‘systematic onslaught’ against minority community

Iranian authorities arrest dozens of members of religious group, charging some with spying for Israel; also raid village and destroy homes

Luke Tress is an editor and a reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

A home the Baha'i International Community says was destroyed by Iranian authorities seen in footage released on August 3, 2022. (Screenshot)
A home the Baha'i International Community says was destroyed by Iranian authorities seen in footage released on August 3, 2022. (Screenshot)

The lead UN representative for the Baha’i religious group said Wednesday that Iran is carrying out a “systematic onslaught” against its members in the country, after Iranian authorities arrested prominent leaders of the minority community and raided one of its villages.

Iran has long discriminated against the Baha’i, the country’s largest non-Muslim minority, but has recently stepped up its persecution of the group for reasons that are still unclear. The Baha’i faith began in Iran and its world headquarters are in Israel.

Persecution has been “a regular feature of Baha’i life,” said Bani Dugal, the principal representative of the Baha’i International Community at the United Nations.

“However, what we are seeing in recent days is a systematic onslaught which is really vicious and cruel and very systematically organized by the government,” Dugal told The Times of Israel.

Since June, Iranian authorities have arrested dozens of Baha’i on what the community said are baseless charges, including “causing intellectual and ideological insecurity in Muslim society.”

Last month, the arrests continued, as Iranian agents also confiscated Baha’i property, conducted invasive searches and shuttered community businesses.

This week, Iran arrested or imprisoned 13 more Baha’is, including prominent community leaders.

Iran’s Intelligence Ministry said in a statement that the suspects were linked to the Baha’i center in Israel and had collected and transferred information there.

Baha’i UN representative Bani Dugal. (Courtesy)

The ministry accused some of the detainees of propagating “Baha’i colonialism” and “infiltrating educational environments,” apparently a pretext for targeting Baha’i teachers.

Of the recent detainees, three — Mahvash Sabet, Fariba Kamalabadi and Afif Naemi — are community leaders who previously spent a decade in jail until they were released in 2018. Two are in solitary confinement and the whereabouts of another are unknown.

On Tuesday, around 200 Iranian security agents raided a small, agricultural village with a significant Baha’i population in northern Iran called Roshankouh.

At 6 a.m., the security forces appeared without warning, surrounded the village, closed off the roads around it, rounded up Baha’i residents and bulldozed at least six Baha’i homes.  The agents confiscated around 50 acres of land, arrested one person and fired shots in the air “to scare already terrified villagers,” Dugal said.

“We are seeing that this is a pattern that seems to have been unleashed and we hope it will stop here but we don’t know,” she said.

Iran offered no evidence to support the allegations of the Baha’is doing anything illegal. State TV footage showed one of the suspects saying he was being monitored by agents of the ministry, though he did not acknowledge in the footage doing anything wrong. There have been no official statements from Iran and the Iranian UN embassy did not immediately return a request for comment.

The Baha’i religion was founded in Iran in the mid-1800s. Its prophet, Baháʼu’lláh, was exiled from Iran and went to Baghdad, then to Turkey. Ottoman authorities imprisoned him in Acre, in modern-day Israel, which was then under Ottoman control. He was later released from prison, but confined to the area, and died there in 1892. His burial place in Acre is now a shrine for Baha’i members and the Baha’i’s international governing body, the Universal House of Justice, is based in nearby Haifa. The community’s majestic gardens there, which also contain a shrine, are a centerpiece of the city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Baha’is around the world pray toward Israel.

Iranian authorities have used the Baha’i connection to Israel as a pretext for persecution, the community says, even though the link predates the modern State of Israel. Some Baha’i from the diaspora spend time in Israel to tend to the garden and shrines as a temporary service, but there is no established community in Israel. Baha’i in Iran have little, if any communication with the faith’s members in Israel due to fear of Iranian authorities, Dugal said.

The Baha’i gardens in Haifa, June 5, 2014. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Iran has long persecuted the Baha’i, especially since the revolution of 1979, with executions, arrests, harassment, property confiscations and other measures. Baha’is are barred from many professions, denied education and do not have rights like other groups, Dugal said.

Iran recognizes minority non-Muslim religions, but does not recognize Bahaism. UN investigators have turned up documents indicating Iran persecutes the group as a matter of official policy. A 1991 document addressed to Iran’s Supreme Leader on the “Baha’i question” said the community should be denied education, employment and positions of influence.

In 2013, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters, urged Iranians to avoid all dealings with the Baha’i. Khamenei’s fatwa, or religious order, supported similar fatwas in the past by other clerics.

The group is the largest non-Muslim minority in Iran, outnumbering Christians, Zoroastrians and Jews, although the minority Sunni Muslim community is larger. There are no accurate figures about the population in Iran because authorities do not allow the community to organize on a national level, but Dugal estimated there were 500,000 to 1 million Baha’i in Iran, spread out across the country.

It’s unclear what sparked the recent round of persecution, with no known connection between other recent developments, including the targeting of other civilian groups. Late last month, the anti-regime dissident group MEK canceled its annual conference in Albania, a major event, due to terror threats; a series of reports in recent months have said Iran is targeting Israelis in Istanbul; and last week a man with an assault rifle was arrested outside the home of an American-Iranian in New York.

Tehran’s nuclear talks with world powers are also ongoing. Iran said Wednesday it has sent a delegation to Vienna to reengage in the negotiations.

The village that had homes demolished on Tuesday and other communities in the same province have been targeted in the past, but “the way they did it this time was a bit of a shock,” Dugal said.

“It’s a way of spreading terror in the entire national community,” she said.

“They’re accusing people of being spies and all of that. These are relatively modest people with not great income working, tilling the soil up in northern Iran,” she said. “They believe in the Baha’i faith but that’s about it. To imagine that there’s some great espionage movement or political movement is really absurd.”

“I don’t know what information these poor farmers would be sending anywhere,” she said.

The Baha’i International Community released footage from the scene showing people from the village aghast amid the wreckage of their homes.

She said the government likely targeted Baha’i out of simple discrimination, to use them as political scapegoats and to confiscate their property and resources.

Baha’is in Iran can leave, but they “love their home,” Dugal said, and many cannot afford to relocate to a new country.

The community’s diaspora is pressuring world governments to support the community.

The regime’s end goal is to “eliminate the Baha’is as a viable entity in the country,” Dugal said.

“We’re hoping that this current spate of violence and attacks and arrests is not the beginning of something new, a new chapter in the persecution,” she said. “We’re pleading to all governments of the world to impress upon the Iranian authorities to cease and desist from what they’re doing.”

The US State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom on Tuesday said the US “urges Iran to halt its ongoing oppression of the Bahai community and honor its international obligations to respect the right of all Iranians to freedom of religion or belief.”

Agencies contributed to this report.

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