Some 300,000 Baha'is live in Iran, where their religion was founded in the mid-19th century. Iran is also where Baha'is have long faced harassment and persecution for their beliefs.
"Baha'is have no rights in the Islamic republic, even rights that other recognized [religious] minorities enjoy in Iran," says Abdolkarim Lahiji, vice president of the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues. "For example, a Baha'i teenager cannot enter Iran's universities; either he would have to lie and say that he is not a Baha'i, or else be deprived of the right to higher education. The Baha'i community of Iran had organized computer-based correspondence classes for youth, the authorities have repeatedly disrupted these [classes] and confiscated teaching materials and generally they have made life for the Baha'i minority difficult."
Diane Alai is the United Nations representative of the Baha'i International Community.
"For 20 years, Baha'is have been imprisoned, condemned to death," Alai says. "Their properties have been confiscated. People have been expelled from their jobs. Elderly people are not receiving their pensions. Baha'i properties have been confiscated. Baha'i holy places have been demolished, cemeteries desecrated."Unity Of Humanity
The Baha'i faith
was founded by Mirza Hussein Ali Nuri, known as "Bahaullah" -- Arabic for "the Glory of God." The unity of all religions, the unity of humanity, and the equality of men and women are among the main teachings of Bahaullah.
Some Muslims consider Baha'is to be heretics. Many see theological conflicts with Islam as the main motive for the persecution of Baha'is. Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad is "the end of prophesy." The Baha'i faith, founded several centuries after Islam, states that divine revelation will continue.
"People are free to choose their way, and the Holy Koran has clearly stated: 'There is no compulsion in the religion,'" says Abbas Mohajerani, a professor of Islamic theology and philosophy in London. "The Baha'is or any other sect are free to take the direction they want, but when it comes to the principles of a religion and law you have to bear in mind that Islam explicitly says that Muhammad is the last prophet sent by God and whoever does not believe it is not a Muslim."
"Since the beginning of the Islamic Republic we can say that there are approximately 200 Baha'is that have been executed only for their beliefs, thousands that have been jailed."
Baha'is believe that God has revealed himself to humanity through a series of divine messengers. The messengers have included Abraham, Krishna, Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad. According to the Baha'i faith, Bahaullah is the latest of these messengers.
The Baha'i faith has about 5 million followers in more than 200 countries and territories throughout the world.
In Iran, the situation of the Baha'is worsened after the 1979 revolution. In the early 1980s, authorities banned the Baha'i religious and spiritual administration and declared membership in it to be crime. Alai, the Baha'i International Community's UN representative, says after the revolution in Iran the harassment of Baha'is became systematic. However, she adds that in recent years the execution of Baha'is and long-term detention have decreased.
"Since the beginning of the Islamic Republic we can say that there are approximately 200 Baha'is that have been executed only for their beliefs, thousands that have been jailed," Alai says. "But in recent years, we have seen a great decrease in the number of executions and long-term detention."International Pressure
The European Union, in its recent statement on the human rights situation in Iran, protested the recent desecration of Baha'i holy sites.
Alai said that in the past year, two Baha'i holy places have been desecrated in Iran.
"The first one was actually earlier in the year and it was a resting place of Guddus, who was one of the important figures of the Babi Baha'i movement," Alai says. "And then, more recently, the house of Mirza Bozorg Noori [the father of Bahaullah] in Tehran was totally demolished."
Mirza Abbas Nuri, known as Mirza Bozorg, was a provincial governor and a famous calligrapher. Baha'is around the world have strongly denounced the destruction of these places and published a statement in "The New York Times" noting that Mirza Abbas Nuri's house was an "historical monument and a precious example of Islamic-Iranian architecture."
In July, the Iranian daily "Hamshahri" published an article about the life of Mirza Abbas Nuri and the architecture of his house and noted that Iran's cultural heritage organization is due to rebuild the house.
There has been no official reaction by the Iranian government.
On 2 December, Iran's Baha'i community, in a letter to Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, called for their human rights to be respected.
A recent example of that came from Kazakhstan, where a Lutheran Christian church in Astana faced destruction to make way for new roads and apartments. Murtaza Bulutay, a Kazakh Islamic theologian, was among those objecting to the plans.
Alai hopes that international pressure on the Islamic establishment of Iran will help improve the situation of Baha'is living there.
"This is why we are appealing both to the Iranian government and the Baha'is in Iran are appealing to the Iranian government and we at the international level are calling upon the international community to put pressure on the Iranian government to basically emancipate the Baha'is in Iran so they can just... They don't want more rights than any average Iranian citizen, but they want the right of an Iranian citizen and the right to practice their faith," Alai says.
This story is one of many featured on RFE/RL's new Religion And Tolerance
webpage, which highlights examples of religious tolerance in our broadcast region. Visit for insight into the roles of Islam and Orthodoxy, features on religious topics, an interactive map of RFE/RL's broadcast region, biographies of leading religious figures, and profiles of religious minorities.
(Originally published on 6 December)