By Elliott Abrams, The Washington Post
Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was a deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration.
Public rites will be visible across Iran on Wednesday in honor of Ashura, a major Shiite festival commemorating the death of Hussein, Muhammad’s grandson. But for Iranians who are not Shiite Muslims, public practice of their religion remains severely limited or flatly banned — and the Islamic Republic’s war on religious freedom has hurt no community more than Iran’s Bahais.
There are only 300,000 Bahais in Iran, or less than one-half of 1 percent of the country’s population. But since its founding in 1979, the Islamic Republic has singled this group out for systematic repression. In the early years, hundreds of Bahais were executed and thousands more were imprisoned. Bahai properties have been confiscated without compensation. Bahai Iranians are barred from holding government jobs, their children are excluded from the nation’s university system, their marriages are not recognized and their cemeteries and holy places have been desecrated. It is government policy to incite hatred of Bahais in the official media. And more than 100 Bahai leaders remain in prison — for the crimes of being Bahai and teaching their children their religion.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has sought to cast himself as a moderate. His “rise to power and the strengthening of his position will come at a cost to Iran’s hard-liners,” the Iranian-born analyst Meir Javedanfar predicted last month. Here is a good test: Will the harsh conditions for Iran’s Bahais improve? After decades of oppression by the Islamic Republic, will the bitter official pressure be reduced?
Alas, the evidence suggests the answer is no. To smooth Rouhani’s path at the U.N. General Assembly in September, Iran released 11 prisoners of conscience — but not one was a Bahai. In August a well-known Bahai in Bandar Abbas, Ataollah Rezvani, was murdered. Before his death, human rights groups report, Rezvani had received threats and been pressured by agents of the Ministry of Intelligence. He also received threatening phone calls. The government opened an investigation, but no progress has been reported.
Amnesty International reported last year that: “Non-Muslims, especially the Baha’i community, have been increasingly demonized by Iranian officials and in the Iranian state-controlled media. In 2011, repeated calls by the Supreme Leader and other authorities to combat ‘false beliefs’ — apparently an allusion to evangelical Christianity, Baha’ism and Sufism — appear to have led to an increase in religious persecution. The Baha’i minority . . . suffers particularly harshly at the hands of the state, which regards it as a ‘heretical’ sect.”