By Rachel Wolfe
Imagine if you lived in a world where it is government-sanctioned practice to be constantly under surveillance, to have your property confiscated or destroyed, your educational rights denied, your children harassed, and your livelihood taken away.
Worse yet, imagine that all of this is happening to you solely because of your religious beliefs. Sound like a distant dystopian future that is only found in novels? This is a daily reality for the Baha’is in Iran.
Since 2009, the Iranian government has made concerted and systematic efforts to impoverish and isolate the Baha’is in Iran from their fellow citizens. This has been seen most clearly in Semnan, a town roughly 130 miles east of Tehran. The few hundred Baha’is in this town have been subjugated to intense economic and social pressures including losing their jobs, having their businesses closed and homes raided, their cemeteries desecrated, and being continually harassed by Iranian officials.
On Nov. 1, three Baha’is came together to speak out for their family and friends living in Semnan at a press conference held at Human Rights Watch’s Washington D.C. office. Monir Khanjani, Siavosh Khanjani, and Dr. Abdu’l-Missagh Ghadirian each gave unique and varying perspectives on the recent events unfolding in Semnan.
Khanjani began by explaining that five members of the Khanjani family are currently in prison – including her uncle Jamaloddin Khanjani, who was a member of the Yaran (literally “friends”), the former ad hoc leadership group of the Baha’is in Iran. She then spoke about the attempts to dehumanize and degrade the Baha’is in this town, recalling a story of her cousin who was paralyzed in a car accident that forced her to move to her elderly parents’ home with her four children. While living there, their home was firebombed, hitting Khanjani’s cousin’s room. Khanjani noted that this incident and others like it were simply due to religious persecution. “All of this has happened just for their faith as Baha’is. There is no other crime, no other reason.”
Khanjani then discussed the anti-Baha’i propaganda that has been disseminated by the civil authorizes and clergy in Semnan in recent years. In addition to several anti-Baha’i rallies touting false statements about the nature of the Baha’i community, the authorities have made concerted efforts to impoverish the Baha’is of Semnan, including revoking business licenses, and closing down existing shops and factories. One example of such actions is the step-by-step demolition of the Khanjani family farm. This farm has been in the Khanjani family for some 200 years and at one time had 40,000 fruit trees covering 100 hectares of land. The farm produced 50 tons of fruit annually and employed over 50 Baha’is and Muslims. Unfortunately, events like this are not isolated and the lengths taken to impoverish the Baha’is harm the Iranian economy as a whole, not just the Baha’i community. Additionally, authorities have closed 17 Baha’i owned businesses since 2009, which has resulted in the loss of work for both Baha’is and Muslims.
Ghadirian, a psychiatrist who has done extensive research on resilience and coping with suffering, spoke about the psychological effects of the persecution of the Baha’is in Iran. Dr. Ghadirian focused on the most vulnerable group affected—infants. Currently, there are two infants imprisoned with their mothers in Semnan; at the time of their imprisonment, one infant was five month old and the other only one month. He outlined the difficulty of caring for a baby in prison as well as the effects on the infants of living in this confusing and violent environment. Ghadirian then relayed a personal story about the desecration of the graves of his mother, sister, and brother-in-law, declaring that “this is the worst type of aggression, in a way it is like killing them twice.” Sadly, this desecration of Baha’i grave sites is a frequent practice. Yet, despite the difficult conditions the Baha’is of Semnan must face, they have shown immense strength and resilience. Ghadirian believes that “you cannot break down the faith of those who believe so strongly in their religion.”
These personal stories of a community under fire solely because of their religious beliefs are unimaginable to those of us who live and practice our religious beliefs in a safe and free environment. Yet there are whole generations of Iranian Baha’is who grow up never knowing what it is too freely and openly practice their beliefs without fear of punishment. This is truly an unacceptable and unimaginable reality.
Rachel Wolfe is a fellow at the Office of Public Affairs of the Baha’is of the United States. She has previously worked on gender equality, human rights, and health related issues including HIV/AIDS in Kampala, Uganda at the Office of External Affairs of the Baha’is of Uganda.