Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Bahá’í are believed to be the largest non-Muslim religious minority in Iran, with the size of the community estimated at 300,000. The Bahá’í faith was founded in Iran in the mid1800s and frames itself as new revelation and continuation of monotheistic, and other, religious traditions that predate it. Followers of the Bahá’í faith have long been labeled as heretics by the clerical establishment in Iran, with state-sanctioned persecution intensifying after the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
The Bahá’í Faith has never been legally recognised in the land of its birth, Iran, and its followers have suffered intermittent persecution since the foundation of the twin Bábi and Bahá’í religions in 1844. This persecution was particularly intense in the early decades following the foundation of Bahá’í history and again since the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
The persecution of the Bahá’í came to be constitutionally embedded in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Whilst the Bahá’í community has long constituted the largest of Iran’s non-Muslim religious communities, it was intentionally excluded from the Constitution’s 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.’ Since 1979, Bahá’í have been largely excluded from most areas of life including university education employment opportunities and the ability to worship freely. According to one estimate, around 10,000 Bahá’í were fired from public sector jobs after 1979, not to mention all those prevented from being recruited in the state sector ever since.
While non-recognized religious minorities are vulnerable to state persecution, this is most pronounced in the case of the Bahá’í community, which the Iranian government considers to be a heretical sect and oppositional group undeserving of legal protection. Between 1978 and 2005, a total of 219 Bahá’í were killed by Revolutionary Courts because of their faith. The seven members of the national-level leadership of the Iranian Bahá’í community were sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment in 2010. Their sentences were reduced to 10 years in 2015 in line with previous changes to the Penal Code, resulting in four of them being released in 2017 and 2018. Bahá’í are also prevented from attending religious and social gatherings and their homes are regularly raided, with their religious books and items confiscated. In July and October 2016, several Bahá’í cemeteries were destroyed or vandalized, and police reportedly took no action. The government has also made concerted and wide-ranging efforts to deny Bahá’í from accessing education and employment merely for being Bahá’í.
The official position of the Iranian regime is that the Bahá’í faith is a ‘manmade religion’ and a political movement disguising itself as a spiritual community. In May and June 2016, a wave of hateful statements against the Bahá’í community made by 169 religious, judicial and political leaders attracted condemnation from both the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief and the Special Rapporteur on Iran. Bahá’í advocates also maintain that official school textbooks openly vilify the Bahá’í faith and teach distorted information about the community’s history and beliefs.
Religious discrimination is institutionalized through the practice of gozinesh, a mandatory screening process that anyone seeking employment in the public or para-statal sector must undergo. Gozinesh involves assessing prospective employees’ belief in Islam or one of the constitutionally-recognized religions, as well as their loyalty to the Islamic Republic. This policy clearly discriminates against adherents of non-recognized religious minorities. Bahá’í remain prohibited completely from employment in the civil service. A 1991 memorandum issued by the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution and signed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei calls for Bahá’í to be dealt with in such a way ‘that their progress and development shall be blocked’ and further states that ‘employment shall be refused to persons identifying themselves as Bahá’í.’
The authorities also deploy a range of tactics to prevent Bahá’í from earning an income in the private sector, including refusal to issue commercial licenses, harassment of Bahá’í business owners and confiscation of land and merchandise. A letter issued by a government office in 2007 called for Bahá’í to be excluded from a list of 25 trades and occupations and to be prohibited from high-earning businesses. Between June and November 2016 alone, the authorities shut down at least 150 Bahá’í-owned businesses. In April 2017, the authorities shut down 18 shops for being closed on a Bahá’í holy day.
Bahá’í are the religious minority most severely affected by the denial of the right to education, in part because their religious code prohibits them from misrepresenting their faith. The 1991 government memorandum about the Bahá’í, contains the instruction that ‘[t]hey must be expelled from universities, either in the admission process or during the course of their studies, once it becomes known that they are Bahá’ís.’ As a result of government restrictions on access to university education, some community members founded the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education in 1987, many of whom were later imprisoned. According to the Bahá’í International Community, up to now hundreds of Bahá’í students are prevented from accessing university education on a yearly basis. Despite meeting all entrance requirements, some receive automated messages stating that their files are incomplete, preventing them from completing the enrolment process. Others who manage to enrol are dismissed from university once it becomes known that they are Bahá’í.
Bahá’í women are particularly affected, both because their religious teachings forbid them from misrepresenting their faith, and because of the enormous government hostility towards the group. A 1991 government memorandum about the Bahá’í contains the instruction that ‘they must be expelled from universities, either in the admission process or during the course of their studies, once it becomes known that they are Bahá’í.’ Every year, despite meeting all entrance requirements, many prospective Bahá’í students receive automated messages stating that their files are incomplete, preventing them from concluding the enrolment process.
Marriages involving Bahá’í are particularly problematic due to official intolerance of their faith in Iran. Bahá’í marriages are not recognized, which compels many Bahá’í couples to conduct their marriage according to Islamic rules and declare themselves Muslim to register their marriage. In the case of marriages between Muslims and Bahá’í, although interfaith marriages are accepted in the Bahá’í faith, they are condemned by the Islamic religious establishment. A case described on Iranwire, a well-known Persian social and citizen-journalism website, shows the difficulties faced by a Muslim woman wishing to marry a Bahá’í man. The couple could not find anyone willing to perform their Islamic ceremony or register the marriage, and only after paying a significant sum of money to a cleric were they able to have the rites performed. Their marriage certificate does not contain any reference to the husband’s Bahá’í faith, instead stating ‘subject to Islamic Republic Laws’ in the religion field.
Since 2015, Iran has been expanding the role of biometric ‘smart cards’ in many aspects of public life, such as applying for a driving license or undertaking a bank transaction. This is now being used as a tool of discrimination. In January 2020, the Iranian government ceased allowing applicants for the card to choose ‘Other’ in the religion field on the application form, which had previously been one of the available options. Instead, applicants must now choose one of the four officially recognized religions given on the form – Islam, Christianity, Judaism or Zoroastrianism. This leaves members of smaller religious minorities with only two options: either lie about their religious identity or be prevented from obtaining the card. Since Bahá’í teachings forbid their followers from denying their faith, a Bahá’í citizen who wishes to remain faithful to the religion has no choice but to forfeit the smart identity card. This has wide-ranging implications for access to social and economic rights. The card and its unique identifier are needed to complete an array of essential functions, such as obtaining a driver’s licence, applying for a credit card, buying property and enrolling in university. If, on the other hand, Bahá’í report themselves as Muslims in order to obtain the card, the Iranian government would be equipped with statistical data that it could potentially use to deny their presence and distort the true religious make-up of the country’s population.
Updated February 2021