RFE/RL correspondent Ladan Nekoomaram sat down with Sovaida Ma'ani Ewing, an international lawyer and Baha'i activist and author of the book “Collective Security Within Reach,” to discuss the persecution of Baha’is in Iran.
RFE/RL: How long have Baha’is been a target of persecution in Iran? Has it gotten worse in recent years?
Ma’ani Ewing: The persecution of the Baha’is has been going on in Iran since the inception of the faith in 1844. And in the mid-19th century, about 20,000 Baha’is were killed in Iran. The reason for this persecution was that the Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad is the seal of the prophets. And so they take real exception to the fact that Baha’u’llah, prophet founder of the Baha’i faith, has laid a claim to be a new prophet. Therefore, he is viewed as a heretic and all of his followers are viewed as heretics who therefore deserve to die.
During the 20th century, there have been occasional surges in the persecution of Baha’is on the part of the Iranian government. In 1933, for instance, there was a ban on Baha’i literature; Baha’i marriages were not recognized; and Baha’is in public service were demoted or fired. In 1955, the government oversaw the demolition of the national Baha’i center in Tehran with pickaxes. But none of it has been as severe and systematic as it has been since the current regime came into being in 1979. Once the Islamic republic came into being, it became government policy to systematically and methodically -- essentially suffocate -- the Baha’i community in Iran.
RFE/RL: Is it government policy to annihilate the Baha’i community?
Ma’ani Ewing: There is now hard evidence to support this. In 1993, the special representative of the then Human Rights Commission, Reynaldo Galindo Pohl, reported that he discovered an official Iranian government memorandum that was signed by [Supreme Leader Ayatollah] Ali Khamenei and issued by the Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council in which it was clear from the document that their aim is to slowly and very quietly suffocate the Baha’i community in a way that won’t arouse international suspicion.
RFE/RL: What is life like for a Baha’i in Iran today? What kinds of restraints are placed upon them?
Ma’ani Ewing: They deny Baha’is access to universities in Iran, and children in school are vilified, pressured, and abused in many ways. Baha’i business licenses are yanked, cemeteries are desecrated, and the holy places in Iran have been seized, confiscated, and destroyed. Consequently, the economic stress is severe on the Baha’is, the social stress is severe, and there’s constant fear that someone’s going to break into your house and take your family members. That’s what life’s like. You’re in constant fear that you’re going to lose everything, up to and including your life.
Ma’ani Ewing: The Baha’i faith is not even recognized under the constitution as a religious minority, so they don’t exist legally and therefore don’t have rights. When something doesn’t exist, they don’t have to allocate them rights.
RFE/RL: But do they have rights as citizens?
Ma’ani Ewing: Technically, yes, but those rights are trampled on, just as we see the rights of other groups being trampled on. What they do is issue trumped-up charges. So they accuse them of all kinds of things as they’re doing right now with the trial of the seven Baha’i leaders. They accuse them of being spies for Zionism and Israel. This is because the Baha’i world center is located in Haifa, Israel. What the Iranian government fails to tell people is that the whole reason that the Baha’i world center is in modern-day Israel is because the then Persian Empire exiled Baha’u’llah to what was then the Ottoman Empire until he ended up in Akka, and it is because he died there that it has become the world’s spiritual and administrative center.
Throughout the 20th century, they’ve accused us of being agents of Russian imperialism, British colonialism, American expansionism, and now Zionism. It’s important to know that one of the cardinal tenets of the Baha’i faith is that Baha’is may not engage in partisan politics of any kind.
RFE/RL: Have many Baha’is have fled Iran since the revolution?
Ma’ani Ewing: Those few who had the means and ability to leave the country and wanted to, did. But the majority of Baha’is in Iran are poor, regular folks living in villages and small towns. They don’t have access to the money and the means to fly out of the country. In addition, many of those who could have left chose not to. They preferred to stay and serve their country.
Ma’ani Ewing: The seven right now are being represented by Shirin Ebadi, the famous Nobel laureate, but right now she’s out of the country fleeing for her own life. She has a human rights center in Iran that has lawyers, some of who were appointed to represent the Baha’is. With these seven, the next lawyer they were assigned, Abdolfattah Soltani, was promptly put in prison. They were finally given the dossier of charges, but there’s been absolutely no evidence to support these charges. Initially, they weren’t even going to allow the lawyers into court on February 8, so they had to argue their way in. There is no due process in the way that we understand it here in the West.
RFE/RL: Is there refuge for Baha’is in Iran or groups that can help them?
Ma’ani Ewing: No. They rely on their families, the community, and really international pressure. The international pressure that has been brought over the years, I am convinced, has held the Iranian government back from attaining their goal, which is the annihilation of the Baha’i community in Iran. It’s because they know the world is watching.
Iranians citizens in general and Iranian human rights groups abroad are starting to speak out openly for the first time against the abuse of the Iranian Baha’is. In the past, people were too afraid to speak up, but I guess people are fed up now.
RFE/RL: What is the U.S. doing to help the Baha’is materially and what is the international Baha’i community doing to help? Can they even do anything given international restrictions?
Ma’ani Ewing: If I understand this correctly, your question has to do with restrictions of U.S. law and international sanctions against Iran. As you know, there’s been a system of progressive United Nations sanctions imposed on the country. And under those sanctions and U.S. law, there are prohibitions about money going to Iran for any purpose because once it’s there, we don’t know if they’re going to divert that money. Even human rights organizations find their hands tied in terms of sending monetary and material support.
The most effective ways in which both the international community and the U.S. government can help and indeed have already been helping is by continuing every time they make statements on human rights in Iran to feature the Baha’is prominently, to continue to issue resolutions at the United Nations, and to speak up about the Baha’i situation and bring moral pressure on the government of Iran to cease its unfair persecution of the Baha’is.
RFE/RL: Do you think the discussion of religious freedom in Iran should be part of U.S. talks with Iran?
Ma’ani Ewing: I believe it’s always important to do the right thing, and when we as a nation claim to believe in a set of principles -- in this case human rights -- then when they’re violated, we need to speak up and vociferously object. You see, the problem with the way international affairs is carried out today is that it’s largely based on expediency. What do I need to do in the short term to fulfill my narrow self-interest and what principles am I willing to barter away to do so?
I firmly believe that it is absolutely critical for any government that believes in human rights principles to speak up whenever and wherever they’re violated and not make it part of a deal. We need to speak up and say, "Look, you yourself have signed onto this treaty, agreeing to abide by these principles, and you are now reneging on it, and we’re going to hold you to the promise you made.” If necessary, appropriate international punishment must also be applied.