“Foul, unclean, and rootless sect.” These are the words used by the commander of the government’s Revolutionary Guard in Shiraz, Iran to justify the destruction of much of a Baha’i cemetery in that city. He added that Baha’is had “no rightful place” in Iranian society. How can this be said about a faith that originated in Iran 170 years ago, has over 300,000 followers – the largest non-Muslim religious minority in the country – and has over five million adherents worldwide?
In April of this year, the Revolutionary Guard began excavating the cemetery, which is the site of over 950 Baha’i graves, in order to build a new cultural and sports complex on the plot of land it occupies. In a public celebration held in June, the Revolutionary Guard commander spoke the words above about the Baha’i Faith while standing upon the graves of many of its adherents.
When my mother told me the news about the cemetery, I could not hold back my tears. Most of my relatives, including my maternal and paternal grandparents, were buried there, as well as several friends I grew up with in Shiraz.
My grandmother, whom I used to call “madar,” which means “mother” in Persian, is buried in that cemetery. I spent every day after school at her house, and she was truly like a mother to me. My grandfather, with whom I was also very close, is buried next to her. One of my most vivid memories is the funeral service we held for him. I can clearly remember the sense of reverence I felt as I prayed at his grave as a child.
The desecration of the graves of my grandparents and others is yet another abusive act in a long history of oppressive acts committed against the Baha’is in Iran.
Since the founding of their religion in nineteenth century Persia, Baha’is have undergone persecution. Baha’i beliefs center around the oneness of the human race and the common foundation of all of the great religions of the world. Obedience to civil authorities in one’s country of residence, nonviolence, and the avoidance of partisan political activity are central tenets. Despite this, the Baha’is are targeted for severe persecution simply because the authorities cannot tolerate the existence of a religion arising after Islam.
By some estimates, over 20,000 Baha’is were killed by execution or mob violence in the early years of the faith (mid to late 19 century). While the situation improved greatly in the twentieth century, Baha’is still endured discrimination and social hostilities. Since the 1979 Revolution, the oppression of Baha’is has become official, systematic and unrelenting. Baha’i youth are barred from admission to universities and Baha’is are excluded from government employment, denied government pensions, and officially banned from more than two dozen businesses and professions.
The Baha’i community is also subjected to incessant hate-inciting propaganda from the state-sponsored media. Their “blood” is considered “mobah,” meaning that it can be spilled with impunity. Numerous assaults, together with at least 10 killings of Baha’is since 2005, have gone uninvestigated.
Over 100 are currently in prison for no reason other than their faith. There have even been instances in the last few years of Baha’i women incarcerated with their infants. Since 2008, the informal, seven member Baha’i national leadership group has been serving 20 year sentences, the longest of any prisoners of conscience in Iran.
President Rouhani’s campaign pledge to address such widespread repression was one of the principle reasons for his election last year. I was surprised to see that he did not address the topic during his speech on September 25 at the UN General Assembly. This is worrisome given that he has also failed thus far to follow through on his campaign promise to issue a Charter of Citizens’ Rights. When will he open a space for dialogue aimed at improving conditions for all the Baha’is living in Iran?
Knowing that I can never visit their graves again, I cling to the memories of my grandparents all the more. I hope that people of goodwill and governments around the world will speak out against the desecration of this cemetery. I hope that, as a result of the international outcry, the Iranian government will stop this destruction, a symptom of a much larger human rights tragedy, particularly severe for Baha’is but affecting all Iranians. The irrationality of it all is stunning. What conceivable threat could these graves pose to the Iranian government?