Despite repeated calls by the UN and several human rights NGOs, including Amnesty International, to end the persecution and harassment of Baha'is and other religious minorities in Iran, the Iranian authorities "continue to sentence members of the Baha'i community to prison terms for exercising their faith," regrets Nassim Papayianni, Amnesty International's Iran Campaigner.

A revolutionary court in Qaem Shahr, a city in northern Iran, sentenced 24 members of the religious minority to prison terms ranging from two to three years on June 14, Human Rights Activists in Iran (HRA) reported. The group was convicted of "educational activity and deviant propaganda contrary to the sacred law of Islam".

Religious freedom remains under attack in the Islamic Republic of Iran: 14 members of the persecuted #Bahai faith have been sentenced to prison by a Revolutionary Court in Ghaemshahr, Mazandaran province for practicing their religion.#بهائی

— (@ICHRI) July 5, 2023

With more than 300,000 followers in Iran, according to estimates by the Baha'i International Community (BIC), an NGO representing followers of this religion worldwide, Baha'is constitute the largest non-Muslim religious minority in this country, whose constitution officially recognizes only Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism.

Considered heretical Muslims since the birth of this religion in the late nineteenth century, the Baha'is saw their situation deteriorate with the advent of the Islamic Republic in Iran and the adoption of an Islamic constitution in 1979 that prohibits this religion and deprives them of their civil and political rights.

Iran's most repressed non-Muslim minority

"Baha'is have been persecuted in Iran for forty years non-stop, from cradle to grave," said Hamdam Nadafi, director of the Baha'i Office of External Affairs in France, noting that many of them are excluded from mortuary rites and prevented from having access to decent funerals. "Families have found themselves washing the bodies of their deceased in their own homes in their own bathrooms because they have been denied access to the burial chamber on the assumption that Baha'is are unclean and should not be put in contact with others."

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"Members of the Baha'i minority suffer systematic and widespread violations of their rights, including arbitrary detention, torture and other ill-treatment, enforced disappearances, closures of shops and businesses, confiscation of property, demolitions of homes, destruction of cemeteries and hate speech by the authorities and state media, and do not have the right to higher education," Amnesty International said in a report published in August.

Among all religious minorities in Iran, rights violations against Baha'is account for 64.63% of cases, ahead of Christians (20.84% of reports) and 4.63% for Sunnis, says the NGO HRA, in its report for the year 2022, published in December.

"The noose has tightened, as it is for the entire Iranian population"

According to the BIC, several dozen Iranian Baha'is are currently in prison. "At least fifty," said Hamdam Nadafi, adding that information is trickling in, as families are bugged and security forces threaten some of them, condemning them to silence. As of January 2023, the BIC estimated that 89 Baha'is were detained by the authorities. Indeed, dozens of arrests took place in the last four months of 2022, following Mahsa Amini's death and the ensuing protests in Iran.

"The noose has tightened, as it is for the entire Iranian population. The situation after the death of Mahsa Amini has brought the entire Iranian population together in one tragedy, all suffer acts of violence while they aspire to the same thing: freedom, justice and equality for all. With this desire that all Iranians can be recognized as citizens and that they can all enjoy the same rights and freedoms," said Hamdam Nadafi.

Wrongly accused of collusion with Israel

"When Baha'is are convicted, we often find the same arguments: 'undermining the security of the country', 'spying for another enemy state' and often they imply that it is Israel," said the representative of the Baha'is in France, who denounced a false trial. "The Iranian authorities rely on the fact that the headquarters of the Baha'i religion are in the city of Haifa, Israel, to denounce this faith and falsely accuse this community of espionage," Amnesty International said.

Driven into exile in the nineteenth century, the Prophet Bahá'u'lláh, who revealed the Baha'i Faith, died in Haifa, where his remains were buried under Mount Carmel, which is why the seat of the Baha'is is in Israel. "No Baha'is, apart from the hundred or so people who administer the holy site, reside in the country," Nadafi said.

Iran is not the only country where Baha'is are oppressed. Amnesty International and the UN have documented cases of abductions of worshippers in Yemen, where they are targeted by the Houthis, who are Shia and close to Iran. On 25 May, armed members of the Huthi forces stormed a peaceful gathering of the Baha'i community in Sana'a. They arrested 17 people, including five women. Since then, only one person has been released, but the other 16 "remain detained by the Houthis and their fate and whereabouts remain unknown," the NGO warned.

Other cases of violations of the rights of Baha'is have been noted in the past in Egypt, where they are also present. Baha'is are currently estimated to number nearly six million worldwide, including a large community in India, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and only a few thousand believers in France.

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