Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Barnabus Leith, Bahai Community of the UK


  1.  This evidence is submitted by the Secretary General of the Bahai community in the United Kingdom. This community has been established in the UK since the end of the nineteenth century and Bahai's are currently to be found throughout the country. Approximately 40 per cent of the 6,000 or so Bahai's here are of Iranian origin or descent and a significant number of these came here as refugees from persecution in Iran, the country of origin of the Bahai Faith. Intermarriage has resulted in a significant number of Bahai families in the UK being mixed British-Iranian.

  2.  The UK Bahai community has been involved in defending the human and civil rights of the Bahai community in Iran since 1979. Since that time, representatives of the Bahai community's national governing council, the National Spiritual Assembly, have been in regular touch with Ministers and officials at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about the situation in Iran and have received considerable support and assistance over the years. Our analysis of evidence from the Bahais Iran and of comments from the Bahai International Community's UN Office in New York indicates that this support has contributed significantly to amelioration of the difficult conditions in which the Iranian Bahai community has been living.


  3.  Since the Islamic Revolutionary regime took power in Iran in 1979, Bahais have been harassed and persecuted solely on account of their religious beliefs. They have repeatedly been offered relief from persecution if they were prepared to recant their Faith.

  4.  With approximately 300,000 members, the Bahai Faith is Iran's largest religious minority, but it is not recognised as a religion by the Iranian Constitution. The Islamic regime refers to it as a heresy and a conspiracy. As "unprotected infidels", Bahais have no legal rights, although Iran is a signatory of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which guarantees freedom of religious belief.

  5.  A secret Iranian Government document published by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 1993 confirms that Iran's anti-Bahai actions reflect deliberate government policy. Produced by Iran's Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council on 25 February 1991 and approved by the Islamic Republic's Supreme Leader, this document sets forth specific guidelines for dealing with "the Bahai question" so that Bahai "progress and development shall be blocked". It is no less than a blueprint for the slow strangulation of the Bahai community.

  6.  The Bahais in Iran are no strangers to persecution. Attacks and pogroms against Bahais have happened regularly since the foundation of the community in Iran over 150 years ago. Historically, attacks on Bahais were frequently made for theological reasons by Iran's Muslim clergy, since they believe that no religion should appear after Islam. The fact that there is no clergy in the Bahai Faith may also have been perceived by them as a threat to their own status.

  7.  The Bahai community in Iran poses no threat to the authorities. The principles of the Bahai Faith require Bahais to be obedient to their government and to avoid partisan political involvement, subversive activity and all forms of violence. The Bahai community in Iran is not aligned with any government, ideology or opposition movement. Furthermore, showing goodwill to the followers of all religions is a tenet of the Bahai Faith and Bahais are not enemies of Islam nor, indeed, of Iran.

  8.  The Bahais seek no special privileges. They desire only their rights under the International Bill of Human Rights, of which Iran is a signatory, including the right to life, the right to profess and practice their religion, the right to liberty and security of person, and the right to education and work.


  9.  Encouraging statements have recently been heard from representatives of the Iranian Government in international fora. At the 88th Session of the International Labour Organisation in June 2000, the representative of Iran stated, "Although the members of the Bahai faith did not belong to a recognised religious minority, under the terms of the legislation approved by the Expediency Council in 1999, all Iranians enjoyed the rights of citizenship irrespective of their belief." In the Summary Record of the 618th meeting of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, held in May this year, Ambassador Khorram, representative of the Iranian Government, is reported as having said that the adoption of this new law had improved the situation of those who followed "non-recognised religions and beliefs such as the Bahai Faith".

  10.  Measures were recently taken by the Government of Iran which made it possible for married Bahai couples to be registered as husband and wife, and for the children of such couples to be registered.

  11.  Following a period of apparent intensification of persecution in the Mashhad area after mid-1998, during which Mr Ruhu'llah Rawhani was executed and three other Bahais were sentenced to death, on 3 February 2000 two of them—Mr Sirus Dhabihi-Muqaddam and Mr Hidayat Kashifi Najafabadi, who had been imprisoned at the same time as Mr Rawhani—were informed orally that their death sentences had been reconfirmed. We have recently been notified that the third Bahai sentenced to death in Mashhad—Mr Manuchehr Khulusi—has been released, although it is not clear what gave rise to his release nor the status of the verdict against him.

  12.  In December 1999, the Bahai International Community was unofficially informed that Mr Dhabihu'llah Mahrami's death sentence for apostasy had been commuted to life imprisonment by an amnesty of the President. We were also informed that consideration was being given to the similar commutation of the death sentence on Mr Musa Talibi, but no confirmation that this has occurred has been received.

  13.  Towards the end of December 1999, we were informed that Mr Farzad Khajeh, Dr Sina Hakiman and Mr Habibu'llah Ferdosian, who had been convicted in connection with their participation in the activities of the Institute for Higher Bahai Studies, had been released.


  14.  Since 1979, more than 200 Bahais have been killed, and 15 others have disappeared and are presumed dead.

  15.  Mr Ruhu'llah Rawhani, executed by hanging on 21 July 1998 after having served nine months in solitary confinement stood accused of converting a woman to the Bahai Faith. The woman concerned refuted the accusation, stating that her mother was a Bahai and she herself had been raised as a Baha«'i. There is no evidence that Mr Rawhani was accorded any legal process or access to a lawyer, and no sentence was announced prior to his execution.

  16.  Arbitrary arrests of Bahais continue.

  17.  Since November 1997 there have been 53 Bahais arrested and imprisoned, and 46 released.


  18.  Since 1983 the Bahai community has been denied the right to assemble officially and the right to maintain its administrative institutions, those democratically elected governing bodies which in other countries organise and administer the religious activities of the community. Since the Bahai Faith has no clergy, the denial of the right to elect these institutions threatens the very existence of a viable religious community. These sacred institutions perform many of the functions reserved to clergy in other religions and are the foundational element of Bahai community life.

  19.  Gradually over the last few years the Iranian Bahais have developed makeshift arrangements to worship in small groups, to conduct classes for children, and to take care of other community needs. However, authorities continue to harass the Bahai community by disrupting meetings and occasionally arresting teachers of children's or "family life" classes.

  20.  Events in Khurasan suggest an intensification of efforts to terrorise members of the Faith and to suffocate the spiritual life of the Bahai community in the region by further curtailing activities aimed at providing education to Bahai children and youth. An example of this abuse was the arrest, detention and summary sentence of two teachers in Mashhad, the capital of Khurasan, to three years' imprisonment, while their students were given suspended sentences, to be carried out should the young people again commit the "crime" of participating in such classes. In September 1998, three more Bahais , Mrs Nahid Sabeti, Mr Manouchehr Sharifi and Mr Hushmand Sanani, were arrested, this time in Bujnurd, northern Khurasan, for participating in Bahai "Family Life" gatherings. After spending six days in prison, they were released, having also been given suspended sentences of five years' imprisonment.

  21.  The use of suspended sentences is a new tactic devised by the Ministry of Information (Intelligence) to prevent Bahais from participating in monthly religious gatherings. It is a threatening device, and the Bahais in Iran are fearful that it may be extended to other parts of the country if allowed to go unchallenged. As has been the recent practice of the Government of Iran, no written documentation relating to the arrest or punishment of the Bahais has been provided to them.


  22.  Bahai cemeteries, holy places, historical sites, administrative centres and other assets were seized shortly after the 1979 revolution. No properties have been returned and many have been destroyed.

  23.  Seizure of cemeteries throughout Iran has created problems for Bahais who have difficulties burying their dead and identifying gravesites. They are permitted access only to areas of wasteland, designated by the Government for their use, and are not permitted to mark the graves of their loved ones.

  24.  The property rights of Bahais are generally disregarded. Since 1979, large numbers of private and business properties belonging to Bahai's, including homes and farms, have been arbitrarily confiscated.

  25.  In 1998 over 500 Bahai homes throughout Iran have been raided at the hands of intelligence officers. When queried about the seizure of personal household effects like television sets and pieces of furniture, these officers claimed that they had been authorised by the Attorney General to take anything they wished.

  26.  Seizure of personal properties, together with the denial of access to education and employment, continues to erode the economic base of the Bahai community.


  27.  The confiscation of property is only one of the ways in which the government is systematically weakening the economic base of the Bahai community. Many Bahais in Iran have also been deprived of the means to earn a living. In the early 1980s more than 10,000 Bahais were dismissed from positions in government and educational institutions because of their religious beliefs. Many remain unemployed and receive no unemployment benefits. The pensions of Bahais dismissed on religious grounds were terminated; some of the Bahais have even been required to return salaries or pensions paid to them. Bahai farmers are denied admission to farmers' co-operatives, which are often the only sources of credit, seeds, pesticide and fertilizer.

  28.   Bahais throughout the country have been bullied and intimidated into abandoning their professions. For example, fabricated excuses were used to force one Bahai doctor to close his practice. Another Bahai doctor was arrested, beaten, slandered, and forced to co-operate with the security guards.


  29.  An entire generation of Bahais has been systematically barred from higher education in legally recognised public and private institutions of learning in Iran.

  30.  Having been denied access to higher education for years, in 1987 the Bahais established their own higher education programme to meet the educational needs of as many of their young people as resources will allow. By 1996 several hundred students were enrolled, and 11 had graduated with the equivalent of a bachelor's degree.

  31.  In late September 1998, more than 36 faculty members of the Bahai Institute of Higher Education (BIHE) were arrested in cities across the country. They have since been released. The arrests were carried out by officers of the Iranian Government's intelligence agency, the Ministry of Information, and also involved the seizure of textbooks, scientific papers and documentary records, some 70 computers, and items of furniture useful to students, including tables and benches. Those arrested were asked to sign a document declaring that BIHE had ceased to exist as of 29 September 1998 and undertaking that they would no longer co-operate with it. The detainees refused to sign any such declaration.

  32.  The Bahai Faith places a high value on education, and Bahais have always been among the best-educated groups in Iran. Being denied access to higher education for years is demoralising to Bahai youth. This erosion of the educational level of the community is, as authors of the policy envisioned, inevitably leading to the impoverishment of the community.


  33.  Unlike Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism, the Bahai Faith is not recognised in the Iranian Constitution: therefore, Bahais fall into the category of "unprotected infidels" whose rights can be ignored with impunity. In general, the pressures placed on Bahais by the judicial system have increased.

  34.  While neither Bahai marriage nor divorce is legally recognised in Iran, measures have recently been taken by the Government of Iran which make it possible for Bahai couples to be registered as husband and wife and to register their children. The right of Bahais to inherit is denied. An article in the Iranian newspaper Khaber, dated 21 July 1999, dealt with the matter of inheritance by Bahais under the laws of Iran in its section devoted to answering legal questions. The article describes different circumstances in which a Bahai claimant to an inheritance cannot enjoy the rights of an inheritor because a Bahai "is considered an infidel and is excluded from the inheritance".

  35.  The freedom of Bahais to travel outside or inside Iran is often impeded by Iranian authorities and sometimes denied. Although the last years have witnessed an increase in the number of Iranian Bahais given passports. It is not clear whether there has been a change of policy on the part of the Iranian government on this issue.

  36.  Such treatment is not confined to Iran itself. Bahais applying to Iranian embassies abroad to renew their passports or to obtain visas to return to Iran have often found officials similarly uncooperative. However, the Iranian embassies in some countries do not require the applicants to state their religious affiliation; in such countries, Bahais are more likely to be able to obtain visas or to renew their Iranian passports. Passport application forms which require applicants to declare their affiliation with a "recognised religion" have been used to pressure Bahais to recant their religious beliefs.

  37.  Furthermore, in a number of communities the practice of summoning Bahais to the security offices on various specious pretexts and insulting and belittling them, so as to create fear in their families and weaken their spirits, still continues unabated.

  38.  In spite of relentless oppression over the last 21 years, the Iranian Bahai community survives and maintains its identity. Its strength and determination, as well as the pressure of world public opinion as expressed in resolutions passed by the United Nations and the Parliaments of several countries, have made it possible for the Bahai community to continue to exist in a difficult and hostile environment. The Bahais have devised ways of teaching the Faith to their children, of worshipping in small groups in private homes, of providing some education to their youth, and of preserving the spirit of the community even without their religious institutions, which were disbanded by order of the Islamic government.


  39.  The commutation of the death sentence of Mr Dhabihu'llah Mahrami and possibly that of Mr Musa Talibi; the release of a number of prisoners (Mr Manuchehr Khulusi, Mr Farzad Khajeh, Dr Sina Hakiman and Mr Habibu'llah Ferdosian); measures taken by the Iranian Government which enable Bahai couples to register their marriages and their children; the greater ease with which Bahais are now able to obtain passports; and statements by Iranian representatives in international fora that their government is concerned to provide for the rights of all citizens of Iran, including those who are members of religious minorities not recognised by the country's constitution—these are all hopeful signs. However, a serious level of persecution of the Bahais remains—some continue to be detained in prison by reason of their religion, a number of them under sentence of death; others are subject to arbitrary detention for short or longer periods; all Bahais are subject to discrimination in respect of social, economic, legal and educational matters; and the Bahai community continues to be denied the right to elect its administrative institutions, around which the communal spiritual and social activities of Bahais revolve.

  40.  The current circumstances are best understood in the context of the unique nature of the persecution to which Iranian Bahais have been subjected for over a century. The Iranian Bahai community has frequently served as a scapegoat, used by various factions struggling for political ascendancy. This has been the case regardless of the changes in the political or dynastic regime. Whenever political leaders have felt a need to divert public attention from some economic, social, or political issue, they have found the Bahai community an easy target because of the senseless hostility and prejudice inculcated in the public by generations of ecclesiastical propaganda.

  41.  It is not the actions of the Bahais but the circumstances of Iranian history that have conspired to make the "Bahai case" a litmus test of sincerity for Iranian public figures who represent themselves as voices of reform and progress.


  42.  The present Secretary General of the UK Bahai community and his office have been in regular contact with officials at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Most of the contact has been with the Iran Desk and has involved sharing of information by telephone and fax as well as regular meetings in which the situation of the Bahais in Iran has been discussed and action by the FCO considered.

  43.  Following the execution of Mr Ruhu'llah Rawhani, immediate steps were taken by the Foreign Office to pass information to the British Embassy in Tehran and to seek joint action with EU partners, Government displeasure at the execution was conveyed to the Iranian Charge in London.

  44.  We have always found the officials we have dealt with to be sympathetic and helpful and to have taken actions that have contributed to the protection of the Bahais in Iran.

  45.  In addition to meetings with Iran Desk Officials, meetings have also been held with the Director, Middle East and North Africa.

  46.  The Secretary General has also met on three occasions with Ministers of State—the late Derek Fatchett, Geoff Hoon, and latterly with Peter Hain. On each occasion, the Secretary General was courteously received and listened to by the Minister and it is our impression that the involvement of the Foreign Office was reinforced by these meetings.


  47.  Each year for many years the representatives of the Bahai community have met with representatives of the FCO's Human Rights Policy Department and Ambassador Audrey Glover in the run-up to the sessions of the Commission on Human Rights and of the General Assembly. The UK has been, and continues to be, an initiator and co-sponsor of the annual resolution on human rights in Iran, a resolution that has had the greatest importance in bringing the plight of the Bahais in Iran to the attention of governments and ensuring that it remains on the political agenda world-wide. The annual renewal by the Commission of the mandate of Professor Maurice Copithorne, the Special Representative on Iran, has ensured that accurate information about the condition of the Iranian Bahai community has been placed, year by year, on the public record. Furthermore, in recent years the resolution has called for the phased, but ultimately complete, emancipation of the Bahai community in Iran in line with the recommendations made by Professor Abdelfattah Amor, the UN Special Raporteur on Religious Intolerance, in 1996. The UK Government's continued support for these resolutions is an important plank in our defence of the Iranian Bahai community.


  48.  Historical links between Britain and the Bahais in Iran and the Middle East go back more than 150 years. There are many references to historically significant moments in the development of the Bahai community in archival government documents: the British Library contains some significant Bahai manuscripts. Baha'u'llah, founder of the Bahai Faith, wrote to Queen Victoria (amongst other significant monarchs): he praised the abolition of the slave trade, commented favourably upon British parliamentary democracy and called for peace in the world. Abdu'l-Baha, Baha'u'llah's eldest son and Head of the Bahai community after his father's death in 1892, was rescued from execution by the Turkish authorities in Palestine at the end of the First World War by General Allenby's army and was subsequently knighted for his humanitarian services in feeding the populace of Haifa in the famine consequent upon the war. Immediately before the Great War Abdu'l-Baha visited the West and gave his first public address in London. His grandson, Shoghi Effendi, who was Guardian of the Bahai Faith from 1921 to 1957, was educated at Balliol and died in London, where he is buried—his grave in the New Southgate Cemetery is a place of pilgrimage for Bahais all over the world.

  49.  The UK Bahai community is one of the longest established in the West and has played a special role in assisting the growth of Bahai communities in many parts of the world.

  50.  This community feels a particular responsibility for the defence of our co-religionists in Iran and is happy to have had so much support from the Government over the years. We look forward to continuing and reinforcing this co-operation.

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Prepared 13 February 2001