Two years ago to date, the top leaders of the Baha’i movement in Iran were enjoying the last peaceful morning they would see in a long time.
While in their homes, four men and two women - a seventh leader had been arrested previously - were dragged off by government officials to one of the world’s most notorious prisons: Evin prison in northwest Tehran.
The seven were known as the Friends, a leadership cadre that provided for the needs of Iran’s 300,000-member Baha’i community. With no access to an attorney, they were charged with spying for Israel, insulting “religious sanctities” and propaganda against the Islamic republic.
“These charges, particularly of espionage, are absurd,” said Joseph Grieboski, president of the Institute of Religion and Public Policy in a statement after the arrest. “The arrest of Iran’s top Baha’i leaders has simply been another move to intimidate and undermine the faith’s followers.”
The leaders: Fariba Kamalabadi, Mahvash Sabet, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeid Rezaie, Behrouz Tavakkoli and Vahid Tizfahm are married with children. They were optometrists, teachers, engineers and industrialists.
They have had three court appearances since their imprisonment two years ago, including a closed hearing on April 12 that their families were prohibited from attending.
Because of the presence of military interrogators in the courtroom, the seven Baha’i leaders refused to answer any questions.
“The judge ended the hearing at that time and did not set a future date,” said Kit Bigelow, director of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’i of the United States.
With no promise of a new trial, the seven leaders remain at Evin, a complex known as Iran’s Bastille. Set next to a large park and an upscale restaurant, the grounds include an execution yard.
For the first six months of their imprisonment, each of the seven members were placed in solitary confinement, interrogated by police and pressured - without success - to make false statements.
The two women were then moved to a 12-foot-by-15-foot cell. The five men share another cell. They all sleep on a cement floors with no pillows, and their cells have neither fresh air nor natural light. They are only allowed to shower and wash their clothes three days a week, and they have limited exercise time outdoors. The two women stay connected to the outside world by sending a guard once a week to buy fresh vegetables for salads.
Baha’i supporters around the world have been protesting their plight and drumming up publicity. In the District, there will be a devotional program at 7:45 p.m. Friday at the D.C. Baha’i Center at 5713 16th St. NW.
The Baha’i faith is Iran’s largest’s minority religion and is considered the world’s youngest independent monotheistic religion. It was founded in Iran in 1844 by a man named Baha’u’llah, a philanthropist who claimed to be a divine messenger equivalent to Buddha, Moses and Muhammad. His central message was of the oneness of humankind. Some of their social principles include eliminating poverty, abandoning all forms of prejudice and recognizing universal education.
The Baha’i faithful have a long history of persecution by the Iranian government as Muslims do not recognize any prophet after Muhammad, who died in the seventh century.
“Many believe that the Baha’i are heretics because they believe in a religion that is post-Islam,” said Ms. Bigelow. “Muhammad said that the Jews and the Christians were ‘people of the book’ - they were people of God. Jesus and Moses lived before Muhammad, therefore they should be treated well.”
The Iranian government only recognizes Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism as official religions.A confidential 2005 document by the Iranian government required a census be taken for every Baha’i. Since then, the intelligence services, police and military have since identified them and are monitoring their activities.
“The Baha’i have no protections. Their blood can be spilled with impunity,” said Dwight Bashir, deputy director for Policy and Research for the United States Commission of International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). “They are considered an illegal organization or sect and can be sent to prison for apostasy. This is a classic case of a disfavored minority over a long period of time, and the policy of the Iranian government has made it very clear that they want to destroy them.”
The Baha’i are not the only religious group who are being arrested and killed for their faith. According to Abe Ghaffari, executive director of Iranian Christians International, pastors have been executed as well and their churches closed. Some Christians are also imprisoned in Evin.
“We hear that Christians have been killed but we only hear about these facts until years later,” he said.
Although the Islamic revolution in 1979 resulted in human rights violations of minority religious groups, the current presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has intensified persecution, according to human rights groups.
The USCIRF, which released its eleventh annual report on religious freedom in April, recommended that Iran be placed under the category of “countries of particular concern,” which includes the worst violators of religious freedom in the world.
And Ms. Bigelow says persecution of the Baha’i will only get worse.
Still, “There is an extremely spiritual community of support and devotion about their sense of identity and spiritual connection with God,” she said. “They have tremendous strength.”