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A Faith Denied: The Persecution of the Baha'is of Iran

Initially, Bazargan and his cabinet were emphatic in their public statements that all Iranians would enjoy the same civil rights, regardless of ethnic or religious background. Nonetheless, Iranian embassies around the world began issuing statements denying reports of persecution and insisting that the Bahá’ís were an anti-revolutionary political movement. These allegations were personally endorsed by the Foreign Minister, Ebrahim Yazdi, a close associate of Khomeini who had also played a major role in the first postrevolutionary trials.141

After a national referendum organized by Khomeini provided an overwhelming mandate to create an Islamic Republic,142 a debate began on the new government’s constitution.143 The initial draft of the constitution, proposed by the Bazargan government, was significantly rewritten by a newly elected Council of Experts, chaired by Khomeini’s close associate Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, with Seyyed Mohammad Hosseini Beheshti as vice-chairman.144 This new draft intentionally excluded the Bahá’ís from protection as a religious minority,145 a right that was accorded other groups, specifically Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians. Political scientist Eliz Sanasarian describes the debate concerning this point recorded in official transcripts of the drafting proceedings:

Anti-Bahá’ísm was obvious throughout the proceedings. This was most apparent in haggling over every word and expression of certain articles to assure the exclusion of the Bahá’ís. For instance, Article 26 of the constitution addresses the right to form political parties, societies, and professional associations whether they be Islamic or belong to one of the recognized religious minorities. In the ensuing debates the original version referred to “official religious minorities.” The speaker of the committee that had worked on the wording of the article explained that the expression was selected on purpose in order to ensure that the Bahá’ís would not be included. In another discussion over the issue of freedom of the press, a deputy commented that, if the press was allowed to operate freely, “the stray Bahá’í sect” through their publications would “seduce” the people.146

This final version took the concept of “official” religions one step further explicitly withholding recognition as such from the Bahá’ís in Article 13:

Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian Iranians are the only recognized religious minorities, who, within the limits of the law, are free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies, and to act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education.

In Article 14 Montazeri’s Council of Experts set the frame that would justify the coming persecution: non-Muslims judged to be engaging in conspiracy or activity against Islam would be exempted from protection of the Constitution. Written with the Bahá’ís firmly in mind and driven by an animus which regarded the Bahá’í religion as heresy, Article 14 effectively criminalized the faith:

In accordance with the sacred verse "God does not forbid you to deal kindly and justly with those who have not fought against you because of your religion and who have not expelled you from your homes" [60:8], the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran and all Muslims are dutybound to treat non-Muslims in conformity with ethical norms and the principles of Islamic justice and equity, and to respect their human rights. This principle applies to all who refrain from engaging in conspiracy or activity against Islam and the Islamic Republic of Iran.147

Iranian officials brushed off the growing concerns of the international community about the constitutional status of the Bahá’ís. A spokesman for the Iranian Embassy in Argentina explained that the exclusion was prompted by the fact that the Bahá’ís were a “misguided group… whose affiliation and association with world Zionism is a clear fact” and who could not be “in the same category as minorities like the Christian, Jews and Zoroastrians.”148 Hassan Habibi, a Minister in the Bani-Sadr government which succeeded Bazargan149 and an expert in Islamic constitutional law, asserted that “Bahá’ísm is not a religion, but a political doctrine.”150 However, authorities often stated that if Bahá’ís converted to Islam, their rights would be immediately restored, effective confirmation that these individuals were being targeted solely for their religious affiliation rather than because of any political activity.151

[141]Id. at 40-43.
[142]Over the opposition of Bazargan and other nationalists, Khomeini organized a referendum on March 30 and 31 1979, asking the nation only one question: “Islamic Republic?”, with a ballot of two colors, green for yes and red for no. Opponents of this type of referendum had wished for an open question referendum, allowing voters to specify the type of government they wanted. Khomeini refused, and personally campaigned for the referendum. The 92.5% turnout of eligible voters and the 92.8% “yes” vote were raised suspicions of irregularities, especially in light of the fact that the election was supervised by the Revolutionary Guards. MENASHRI, supra note 119, at 84.
[143]Id. at 85.
[144]Id. at 86-7.
[145]As Reza Afshari notes, the very notion of enumerating a list of “protected” religious minorities conflicts with the concept of religious freedom: “it was derived from the clerics’ ancient understanding of the country as a sacralized land with an eternal religious (Islamic) essence, the abode of Islam,” implying that “the non-Muslims just happened to be there, more or less as guests.” The Zoroastrian parliamentary representative complained that the result was that religious minorities “who are indigenous to this land and have no country other than Iran are only recognized as second-class citizens.” REZA AFSHARI, HUMAN RIGHTS IN IRAN: THE ABUSE OF CULTURAL RELATIVISM 132 (2001) [hereinafter AFSHARI].
[146]SANASARIAN, supra note 16, at 64, citing to comment in Qa'emi in Surat-e Mashruh-e Mozakerat-e Majlis-e Barrasi-ye Nahaiye Qanun-e Asasiye Jomhuri-ye Islami-ye Iran [The Complete Proceedings of the Assembly for the Final Revision of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran], 26th session, 31/6/1358 (September 22, 1979) at 669; and 28th session, 1/7/1358 (September 23, 1979) at 722.
[147]QANUN-I ASSASIYYIH JUMHOURIYYIH ISLAMIYYIH IRAN [Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran] (adopted 1979, amended 1989) (emphasis added).
[148]Statement by the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Buenos Aires, September 26, 1979, cited in MARTIN, THE PERSECUTION OF THE BAHÁ’ÍS IN IRAN, supra note 1, at 43 (emphasis added).
[149]After the resignation of Prime Minister Bazargan, a presidential election was held under the auspices of the new constitution resulting in the election of Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, who was sworn into office on July 22, 1980. On June 21, 1981 the Majlis voted Bani-Sadr out of office. See MENASHRI, supra note 119, at 122, 181.
[150]MARK KRAVETZ, IRANO NOX 237 (1982).
[151]See, e.g., Namiyyih Ustandar-i Fars Ni'matullah Taqa bih Karmand-i Bahá’í [Circular Letter from the Office of the Fars Provincial Governor addressed to suspended employees of the Governorate of Fars], (date not legible) (on file with IHRDC). See also Bih Ittiham-i Hamkari ba SAVAK va Baha'igari, 153 Nafar az Amuzish va Parvarish-i Azerbaijan-i Sharqi Ikhraj Mishavanad [Convicted of Collaboration with SAVAK and Bahá’ísm, 153 People will be Fired from the Department of Education of Eastern Azerbaijan], ETTELA’AT, 29/11/1358 (February 18, 1980) [attached as Appendix 1] (quoting the Director of the Department of Education in Eastern Azerbaijan, Dr. Nayyirivand, as stating that during that week, 50 Bahá’ís had been dismissed from their jobs, and adding that “[i]f the Bahá’ís accept the true faith of Islam, they will be hired again; otherwise, they will be referred to the Revolutionary Court of Tabriz for further investigation of their files.”)

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Baha'i, Personal Liberty, Arbitrary Detention, Illegal Search and Seizure, Freedom of Religion, Freedom of Conscience