In Iran, Baha’i minority faces persecution even after death

Grave desecrations represent a new attack against Iran’s biggest non-Muslim religious minority

The newly renovated Bahai Shrine of the Bab is seen in Haifa, April 12, 2011. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Illustrative: The newly renovated Baha'i Shrine of the Bab is seen in Haifa, Israel, April 12, 2011. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

PARIS, France (AFP) — A flattened patch of earth is all that remains of where the graves once stood – evidence, Iran’s Baha’is say, that their community is subjected to persecution even in death.

Beneath the ground in the Khavaran cemetery in the southeastern outskirts of Tehran lie the remains of at least 30 and potentially up to 45 recently-deceased Baha’is, according to the Baha’i International Community (BIC).

But their resting places are no longer marked by headstones, plaques and flowers, as they once were, said the BIC. This month, Iranian authorities destroyed them and then leveled the site with a bulldozer.

The desecration of the graves represents a new attack against Iran’s biggest non-Muslim religious minority, which has, according to its representatives, been subjected to systematic persecution and discrimination since the foundation of the Islamic Republic in 1979.

The alleged destruction has been condemned by the United States, which has also criticized the ongoing persecution of the Baha’is, as have United Nations officials.

Unlike other minorities, Baha’is do not have their faith recognized by Iran’s constitution and have no reserved seats in parliament. They are unable to access the country’s higher education, and they suffer harassment ranging from raids against their businesses to confiscation of assets and arrest.

Members of the Baha’i religion demonstrate in Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana beach on June 19, 2011, asking Iranian authorities to release seven Baha’i prisoners accused of spying for Israel and sentenced to 20 years in jail. (Ana Carolina Fernandes/AFP).

Even death does not bring an end to the persecution, the BIC says.

According to the community, following the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, the authorities confiscated two Baha’i-owned burial sites and now forcibly bury their dead in Khavaran.

The cemetery is the site of a mass grave where political prisoners executed in 1988 are buried.

“They want to put pressure on the Baha’i community in every way possible,” Simin Fahandej, the BIC representative to the UN, told AFP.

“These people have faced persecution all their lives, were deprived of the right to go to university, and now their graves are leveled.”

The US State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom said it condemned the “destruction” of the graves at the cemetery, adding that Baha’is “in Iran continue to face violations of funeral and burial rights.”

The razing of the graves comes at a time of intensified repression of the Baha’i community in Iran, which representatives believe is still hundreds of thousands strong.

Senior community figures Mahvash Sabet, a 71-year-old poet, and Fariba Kamalabadi, 61, were both arrested in July 2022 and are serving 10-year jail sentences.

Both were previously jailed by the authorities in the last two decades.

“We have also seen the regime dramatically increase Baha’i property seizures and use sham trials to subject Baha’is to extended prison sentences,” said the US State Department.

At least 70 Baha’is are currently in detention or are serving prison sentences, while an additional 1,200 are facing court proceedings or have been sentenced to prison sentences, according to the UN.

The Baha’i faith is a relatively young monotheistic religion with spiritual roots dating back to the early 19th century in Iran.

Members have repeatedly faced charges of being agents of Iran’s arch-foe Israel, which activists say are without any foundation.

The Baha’is have a spiritual center in the Israeli port city of Haifa, but its history dates back to well before the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

“The fact that they are going after the dead shows that they are motivated by religious persecution and not by a perceived threat to national security or society,” said Fahandej.

Repression of the Baha’is, 200 of whom were executed in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution, has varied in strength over the last four-and-a-half decades, but has been in one of its most intense phases in recent years, community members and observers say.

The UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman, told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva this week he was “extremely distressed and shocked at the persistent persecution, arbitrary arrests and harassment of members of the Baha’i community.”

Fahandej said it was not clear what had prompted the current crackdown, but noted it came as the authorities seek to stamp out dissent of all kinds in the wake of the nationwide protests that erupted in September 2022.

“The treatment of the Baha’is is very much connected with the overall situation of human rights in the country,” she said.

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