In-depth: The Baha'i community in Iran is no stranger to institutionalised discrimination, but under new hardliner President Raisi, land confiscations, imprisonment, and hate crime incitement against the community have escalated.
When Kaykhosrov Manuchehri left Iran in 1978, he was just a young child. Now in his 50s, he still hasn't returned, he told The New Arab, speaking from his UK home.
While Manuchehri would love to visit the country he was born in, his situation is complicated because he belongs to the country's largest non-Muslim minority – Baha'i – who have experienced a 42-year campaign of discrimination. To return, Manuchehri would be forced to complete government forms and identify himself as Baha'i.
Even with an Irish passport, his dual citizenship will not be recognised by Iranian authorities, who have a track record of giving dual nationals a hard time, particularly given his marriage to a non-Iranian, Manuchehri fears.
The Baha'i religion is fairly new and is practised all over the world, including in the Middle East and Asia. Essentially, Baha'is believe that various manifestations of religion come from the same source – "successive chapters of one religion from God" – and that "the crucial need facing humanity is to find a unifying vision of the future of society and of the nature and purpose of life." Bahá’u’lláh is considered the religion's founder and prophet.
"In the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, more than 200 Baha'is were executed for their faith, which is considered by many fundamentalist Muslims to preach heresy"
The persecution of the Baha'i has been ongoing since the 1979 revolution, with discriminatory laws and practises institutionalised in policy. As in many other countries, Baha'is are not recognised as a faith group in Iran.
In the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, more than 200 Baha'is were executed for their faith, which is considered by many fundamentalist Muslims to preach heresy.
Since then, members of the faith have been systematically excluded from earning a legitimate livelihood and education. They are also often vilified in the media and their cemeteries have been repeatedlydesecrated and demolished. The ongoing discriminatory campaign has frequently caught the attention of the UN.
During the pandemic, frequent Zoom calls have allowed Manuchehri to reconnect with family in Iran. But news from Baha'i Iranians isn't always positive, as finding work is hard because employers are penalised if they hire anyone from the faith.
"I know for a fact that the government has closed down and made it very difficult for people to earn a living, so they're really struggling in Iran," he says. "There are a lot of people within the Baha'i community who are just barely making a living. But it's not easy."
Lands belonging to Baha'is have been confiscated and members of the community have been imprisoned for practising their faith. Propaganda against the Baha'i community has also made it difficult for Baha'is to access education and there has been notable incitement of hate crime.
According to the Baháʼí International Community (BIC), these three issues have worsened since principlist and former chief justice Ebrahim Raisi took office. The community now fears that hardliners are feeling more empowered to ramp up measures against the Bahai community, including continuing confiscation of land.
While Baha'is have suffered under all governments, Raisi's appointment to the presidency, which has been thought to bolster the overall controlof the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, has set this discrimination onto a new trajectory, says Diane Ala'i, BIC's representative to the UN.
Land grabs from Baha'i Iranians from government officials happen regularly, but Ala'i says that the practice has become more blatant and unchecked than previous governments, when there may have been excuses provided for the confiscation of land.
Now, officials simply cite section 49 of the Constitution, which covers the confiscation of illegitimate wealth and its return to the rightful owner. Ala'i says simply being Baha'i is now openly considered a sufficient reason for confiscating property, which goes to an organisation under the jurisdiction of the Supreme leader – a parastatal agency called Execution of Imam Khomeini's Order.
The province of Mazandaran has seen a particular uptick in confiscations recently. In early December, 13 irrigated farmland plots belonging to Baha’is in the southwest village of Kata were confiscated and auctioned by the parastatal agency during the water crisis in Iran, placing families sustained by the land at economic risk. Similar land confiscations have occurred in Semnan, Roshankouh and Ivel.
"Baha'is do not proselytise, but the freedom to share one's beliefs with others is an inalienable right under the principles of freedom of religion and belief and an inseparable part of Baha'i life"
In addition, hate propaganda articles against the community have increased, and BIC says that this religious prejudice is motivating Iran’s policy of banning Baha’is from higher education. A sharp incline in anti-Baha'i sentiment has been seen on social media, according to Ala'i.
Imprisonment of the Baha'is for practising their faith has also ramped up, even during the Covid-19 pandemic, leaving many Baha’is waiting for their sentence in a state of limbo.
Recently introduced articles in the penal code have further criminalised religious practices for Baha’is as well as other unrecognised beliefs, enabling judges to prescribe sentences of up to five years imprisonment for believing in these faiths.
“Baha’is do not proselytise, but the freedom to share one’s beliefs with others is an inalienable right under the principles of freedom of religion and belief and an inseparable part of Baha’i life,” says Bani Dugal, Principal Representative of the BIC to the United Nations, iterating Iran must act on the latest UN resolution to respect the rights of the Baha’is.
Even before Raisi’s election, the UN had outlined a series of expectations including the rights of the Baha’i community.
The number of those facing prison are now in the hundreds, says Ala'i, placing psychological and financial pressure on many families.
International sanctions have also made it difficult for overseas Iranian Baha’is to send money to help their family, friends, and community. "It's an isolated country now," says Manuchehri.
"Iran is a country that, despite what it says, is very susceptible to international pressure and to international [and] internal public opinion," says Ala'i. "So, I think that the situation of the Baha’is should always be in any conversations that governments have with the Iranian government, or any statement that mentions human rights in Iran."
Like the UN, international governments have regularly spoken out against the treatment of Baha'is in Iran, particularly after a spate of land confiscations in Ivel in 2020.
However, more focused attention may cause officials to conceal their campaign, which could see further marginalisation of the group, for most of whom leaving their country or hiding their faith is rarely an option.
Even though the Baha'is live all over Iran and come from all ethnic groups and social strata, the community believes that there is not a single family untouched by discrimination in one form or other in the Islamic republic.
"We can't lie and deny the faith," says Manuchehri, "Baha'is say truthfulness is the foundation of all human virtues."
"Even though the Baha'is live all over Iran and come from all ethnic groups and social strata, the community believes that there is not a single family untouched by discrimination in one form or other"
"I think that the Baha'is have been extremely courageous and strong for these more than 40 years that they have been persecuted. They love their country and they want to serve it," says Ala'i.
"To have this sense of uncertainty on their shoulders [of] whether their father, mother or other family members go to prison – maybe the breadwinner of the family will go to prison. This is part of the whole plan the Iranian government has to suffocate this community in one way or another."
(c) 2022, The New Arab