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Iranian Baha'is Told To Bury Loved Ones Atop Mass Graves Of Political Prisoners

Several photos such as this one of the purported new graves at Khavaran, including two that had signs and flowers laid on them, have been posted online.

Long persecuted by Iran's Islamic regime, followers of the Baha'i faith in Tehran have now been told they must bury their dead upon the mass graves of political prisoners.

The Baha'i community in the Iranian capital has for years buried its dead in a special section of Tehran's Khavaran cemetery, near the resting place for hundreds or even thousands of political prisoners who were victims of mass executions in the late 1980s.

Cemetery officials have in recent days reportedly told Baha'is that they are no longer allowed to bury their dead in that section of the cemetery.

Instead, they have been given two choices: they can bury their dead in the narrow space between existing Baha'i graves or use the area where the mass graves are located, says Simin Fahandej, the Baha'i International Community representative to the United Nations in Geneva.

Baha'is find the order unacceptable and want to be able to bury their dead with dignity and according to their religious rules. "With the destruction of many Baha'i cemeteries in the past four decades, Baha'is have experienced the pain caused by disrespect to the deceased and they don't want others to experience the same pain," Fahandej said in an interview with RFE/RL's Radio Farda.

He added that this new pressure from the authorities is part of more than 40 years of state repression and discrimination that Baha'is have faced in Iran since the creation of the Islamic republic.

Victims' families attend a remembrance ceremony in Khavaran cemetery in Tehran.
Victims' families attend a remembrance ceremony in Khavaran cemetery in Tehran.

History Of Persecution

Baha'is -- who number some 300,000 in Iran and have an estimated 5 million followers worldwide -- have faced systematic persecution in Iran, where their faith is not officially recognized in the country's constitution.

Since the Islamic Republic of Iran was established in 1979, hundreds of Baha'is have been arrested and jailed for their beliefs. At least 200 have been executed or were arrested and never heard from again -- that includes all the members of three National Spiritual Assemblies from 1980 to 1984.

Thousands more have been banned from higher education or had their property confiscated. The community has long had its cemeteries desecrated and its loved ones' gravestones destroyed.

The latest restriction put on Baha'i burials in Tehran, where most of Iran's Baha'is live, has also upset the families of the executed political prisoners. They even wrote in an open letter dated April 25 complaining that several new graves had appeared near the site of the mass burials at Khavaran.

"On Friday April 23, while visiting the nameless land of our loved ones, we saw something that was shocking to believe: graves were dug in the mass graves' site of our loved ones and two Baha'is were also buried in those graves," said the letter, which was signed by 79 family members of the executed political prisoners.

"It is our right to know the exact burial place of our loved ones," the letter said, adding that "after being deprived of this right for 40 years, we demand that there won't be any changes and invasion at this cemetery."

They also urged the Iranian authorities to refrain from forcing Baha'is to bury their loved ones on the area where the mass graves are located. "Don't rub salt in our old wounds," said the letter, addressed to Iranian President Hassan Rohani and Tehran Mayor Piruz Hanachi.

'Salt In Our Wounds'

In a separate statement, some of the children of the executed prisoners said they opposed "any changes" at Khavaran, calling on the Baha'is not to submit to the order telling them where to bury their dead. "This is not the first time that the Islamic republic has attempted to cover up the remains of its crimes," the statement said.

Several photos of the purported new graves at Khavaran, including two that had signs and flowers laid on them, have been posted online. The images appeared also to show white lines drawn in the dirt apparently as marks for new graves. RFE/RL cannot verify the authenticity of the images. Reports suggest about 10 new graves have appeared recently at Khavaran's mass graves' section.

Amnesty International said in a statement on April 29 that the Iranian authorities had attempted for years to destroy the mass-grave sites of the victims of the 1988 prison executions "in a bid to eliminate crucial evidence of crimes against humanity, denying truth, justice, and reparations to the families of those forcibly disappeared and extrajudicially executed in secret."

"As well as causing further pain and anguish to the already persecuted Baha'i minority by depriving them of their rights to give their loves ones a dignified burial in line with their religious beliefs, Iran's authorities are willfully destroying a crime scene," said Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.

The executions of political prisoners were carried out in the last days of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, after the founder of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, declared that apostates and those who had taken up arms against the Islamic republic were "waging war against God" and should be sentenced to death.

The prisoners were sent to their deaths following very brief interrogations by a small group of state officials, dubbed by prisoners as "death commissions."

The Iranian establishment has rarely acknowledged the executions while also enforcing a news blackout on the issue. They have also repeatedly harassed family members of the victims who seek answers about their loved ones.

The Baha'i faith is a monotheistic religion whose central figure is Sayyed Ali Muhammad Shirazi, better known as Bab, who was executed in Tabriz by the Persian authorities in 1850. Based on the teachings of Persian religious leader Bahaullah, it considers the founders of various faiths -- including Buddha, Jesus Christ, and the Prophet Muhammad -- as expressions of God.

The central tenet of Baha'is is to promote a "oneness of humankind" that treats people of different nationalities, races, and classes equally.

Elahe Ravanshad of RFE/RL's Radio Farda contributed to this story
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is the author of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.