Thursday, May 22, 2008

Help Free Iranian Baha'is

NEW YORK — Allegations by Iran that six Bahá’ís were arrested last week “for security reasons and not for their faith” are utterly baseless and without documentation, said the Bahá’í International Community today.

“All of the allegations issued in a statement on Tuesday by the Iranian government are utterly baseless,” said Bani Dugal, the principal representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations, referring to statements made in a press conference given yesterday in Tehran by Iranian government spokesman Gholam-Hossein Elham, at which he acknowledged the arrest and imprisonment of six Bahá’í leaders last week.

“The allegations are not new, and the Iranian government knows well that they are untrue,” Ms. Dugal said. “The documented plan of the Iranian government has always been to destroy the Bahá’í community, and these latest arrests represent an intensification of this plan.

“The group of Bahá’ís arrested last week, like the thousands of Bahá’ís who since 1979 have been killed, imprisoned, or otherwise oppressed, are being persecuted solely because of their religious beliefs. The best proof of this is the fact that, time and again, Bahá’ís have been offered their freedom if they recant their Bahá’í beliefs and convert to Islam – an option few have taken.

“Far from being a threat to state security, the Bahá’í community of Iran has great love for their country and they are deeply committed to its development. This is evidenced, for example, by the fact that the vast majority of Bahá’ís have remained in Iran despite intense persecution, the fact that students denied access to education in Iran and forced to study abroad have returned to assist in the development of their country, and the recent effort by Bahá’ís in Shiraz to provide schooling for underprivileged children – an effort the government responded to by arresting some 54 Bahá’í participants in May 2006,” said Ms. Dugal.

In its coverage of Mr. Elham’s press conference, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported that the six Bahá’ís were arrested “for security reasons not for their faith.” The IRNA report also quoted Mr. Elham as saying that the six Bahá’ís were somehow linked to “foreigners, the Zionists in particular.”

Ms. Dugal addressed that issue also, saying:

“The charges linking the Bahá’ís to Zionism are a distortion of history: The Bahá’í Faith has its world headquarters in Israel because Bahá’u’lláh was, in the mid-1800s, sent as a prisoner to the Holy Land by two Islamic countries: Ottoman Turkey and Iran.

“The charge that Bahá’ís are Zionists, which has in fact been made against Bahá’ís for the last 30 years by Iran, is nothing more than an effort by the government to stir animosity against Bahá’ís among the Iranian population at large. This is but the most recent iteration in a long history of attempts to foment hatred by casting the Bahá’ís as agents of foreign powers, whether of Russia, the United Kingdom, or the United States—and now Israel—all of which are completely baseless.

“The real issue, as it relates to Bahá’ís, who are committed to nonpartisanship and nonviolence, is the ideology of the government, which has undertaken a well-documented effort to utterly block the development of the Bahá’í community not only through arrests, harassment and imprisonment but also by depriving their youth of education and preventing adults from obtaining a livelihood.

“We would ask whether issues of state security rather than ideology were involved in recent incidents such as the destruction of a Bahá’í cemetery and the use of a bulldozer to crush the bones of a Bahá’í who was interred there; the harassment of hundreds of Bahá’í schoolchildren throughout Iran by teachers and school officials in an effort to make them reject their own religion; or the publication of dozens of defamatory anti-Bahá’í articles in Kayhan and other government-sponsored news media in recent months,” said Ms. Dugal.

She also noted that over the years, a number of government officials, clerics, and members of the judiciary have in fact made statements in private noting the nonpartisan conduct of the Bahá’í community and the unjustified nature of government charges against Bahá’ís.

She added that the present government’s ideology is based in large part on a belief that there could be no Prophet following Muhammad. The Bahá’í Faith poses a theological challenge to this belief.

“Freedom of religion is the issue and Iran itself is a signatory to international covenants that acknowledge the right of individuals to freedom of religion or belief, including the right to change one’s religion,” Ms. Dugal said.

“What the Iranian government cannot tolerate is that the Iranian people are less responsive to the government’s propaganda, because they see the reality — that Iranian Bahá’ís love their country, are sincere in their desire to contribute to its well-being, are peace-loving, and are law-abiding — and that these qualities stem from their beliefs. Consequently, there is growing sympathy for the Bahá’ís. Increasingly, people at all levels of the society are coming to their defense both privately and publicly, and there is growing interest in and attraction to the Bahá’í Faith amongst the population,” Ms. Dugal said.

The people pictured above have all been arrested. Seated from left, Behrouz Tavakkoli and Saeid Rezaie, and, standing, Fariba Kamalabadi, Vahid Tizfahm, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, and Mahvash Sabet. All are from Tehran. Six were arrested on 14 May 2008 in early-morning raids at their homes, and the seventh was detained in March. In the Baha'i Faith there is no "clergy", instead there are governing bodies that are democratically elected on the local, national, and global level,(and there is no canvassing or campaigning for support - nominations are made and you agree to serve or not) Iran has outlawed both local and national spiritual assemblies. These people serve as an informal national-level coordinating group, known as the Friends, that was established with the knowledge of the government to help cope with the diverse needs of Iran’s 300,000-member Baháí community, which is the country’s largest religious minority.

The first person to be arrested in March was Mrs. Mahvash Sabet. Mrs. Sabet was summoned to Mashhad by the Ministry of Intelligence, ostensibly on the grounds that she was required to answer questions related to the burial of an individual in the Bahá’í cemetery in that city.

This is all very reminiscent of the raids in the early 80's when the members of the national spiritual assembly was rounded up and executed. During that period scores of Baha'is including young teens who helped teach children's classes (like sunday school) were tortured and killed.

Today Baha'i's are refused entry into Iranian universities based on their faith. Children are turned away from state primary schools if they are not silent about being Baha'i. The Baha'i community does NOT participate in civil disobedience. When they were told to end local and national spiritual assemblies, they did. This group of Friends was formed with the government's knowledge.

What can you do to help? Please write to your MP or Congressman. Use the freedom of speech we have in the west. Let your legal representatives know that you want them to speak out at the national level, at the UN, write letters, and please pray, whatever your faith, for their safety and release.

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