By Zackery M. Heern
Originally written for NPR affiliate, WKMS
The Baha’i Faith is the second largest religious community in Iran after Shi‘i Islam. It is also the second most geographically widespread religion in the world.
Oppression of Baha’is in Iran is not new. Iranian officials have persecuted Baha’is since the inception of the Baha’i Faith in the mid-1800s. Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i Faith, promoted a message of international cooperation, gender and racial equality, universal education, and other teachings tailored to the modern world. Baha’is are also committed to nonviolence. Today the Baha’i Faith is organized by local, regional, and international councils, which are made up of democratically elected representatives. Unlike most major religions, then, the Baha’i Faith does not have clergy.
Countless Iranians quickly gravitated to the Baha’i Faith in the 1800s. The burgeoning Baha’i movement faced a swift backlash from religious and political officials. In the mid-1800s, angry mobs and government officials massacred over 20,000 Baha’is. Public executions and parades of dead Baha’is through the streets of Iran were not uncommon. An Austrian eyewitness in 1852 remembers seeing Baha’is with candles in their flesh “dragged in chains through the bazaar, preceded by a military band, in whom these wicks had burned so deep that now the fat flickered convulsively in the wound like a newly extinguished lamp.”
In 1853 the Iranian government exiled Baha’u’llah to the Ottoman Empire – first to Iraq and later to Palestine. Baha’u’llah remained a prisoner in Palestine until the end of his life in 1892.
Therefore, the reason that the Baha’i Faith has its world center in Israel is that Baha’u’llah was exiled there by the Iranian government. Baha’is have not entangled themselves in the Palestine-Israel conflict. In fact, Baha’is do not directly involve themselves in politics in Israel, Iran, or elsewhere.
Throughout the 20th century, oppression of Baha’is in Iran continued. Baha’i marriages were not recognized, Baha’is were disallowed from public employment, and Baha’i literature was banned. In 1955, the Iranian government issued an order for the suppression of Baha’is. During this time, Baha’is were murdered and witnessed the demolition of their national Baha’i center in Tehran.
Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in the wake of the 1979 revolution, the new government has systematically attempted to destroy the Baha’i community. The Hojjatieh Society, which factored prominently into the Islamicization of the Iranian revolution, was initially founded as an anti-Baha’i organization. The current president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is an ardent supporter of the Hojjatieh. The Iranian constitution, which was written by the revolutionaries, does not recognize the rights of Baha’is. Because Iran’s courts treat Baha’is as “unprotected infidels,” Iranians cannot be charged with injuring or murdering Baha’is.
Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s current head of state, signed a secret government document that was leaked in the 1990s, which outlines the government’s plans to block the development of the Baha’i community. He also declared that Baha’is are impure (najes) – a term reserved for animals and infidels.
Throughout the 1980s, the Iranian government systematically executed leaders of the Baha’i community. Since the 1990s, it has shifted to a policy of social and economic persecution. For example, Baha’is are barred from attending colleges and universities, regular news reports condemn Baha’is, and teachers often harass Baha’i school children. Since 2007, Baha’is have witnessed a surge of violence, which includes the destruction of Baha’i cemeteries and new waves of imprisonment, as indicated by the case of Kamal Kashani and many others.
 Quoted in, “The Baha’i Question: Cultural Cleansing in Iran,” New York: Baha’i International Community, 2008, p. 41. For full document, see http://news.bahai.org/human-rights/iran/the-bahai-question.html