Iranian intelligence said a dozen members of the Baha’i religious group it arrested last week were detained because they were spying for Israel, according to Iranian media reports Saturday.
The General Intelligence Department of Mazandaran Province in the north of the country claimed in a statement that two of those arrested were “trained” at the Baha’i center in Haifa, Israel, the religious group’s global center.
It said they formed a network of spies throughout Mazandaran.
Although the statement referred to just 12 suspects, last week the Baha’i International Community, which represents members of the faith, said that 14 people in total were detained — 13 of them youths — and that they were “studying and discussing together the role of education in social progress” at a home in the northern city of Qaem Shahr.
The Baha’i International Community said the arrests were part of an Iranian campaign of repression against adherents of the religion over the past month, which has included arrests, beatings, home demolitions and denial of access to higher education, among other measures.
“How ironic that these youth were arrested while studying and discussing the role of education, when they themselves had all been denied access to higher education by the Iranian authorities,” Simin Fahandej, the group’s representative to UN institutions in Geneva, said in a statement Thursday. “The Iranian government’s cruelty breaks every measure.”
The most recent report of arrests came a week after a human rights watchdog released a report saying Iran has ramped up its “ruthless” persecution of Baha’is, the largest non-Muslim religious minority in the Islamic Republic.
The Amnesty International Report said there has been a surge in the intensity of the “decades-long persecution of this peaceful community… with a recent flurry of raids, arbitrary arrests, home demolitions and land grabs” carried out against the group.
Amnesty dismissed as false previous Iranian accusations that the Baha’i are involved in spying for Israel.
In August Iran arrested several members of the group and accused them of spying for Israel.
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 remained 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 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.
Iran recognizes minority non-Muslim religions, but does not recognize Baha’ism. 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.