Opinion | In Iran, state-sanctioned persecution of Baha'i's escalates. Silence is a warrant.
Updated: Oct 1, 2022
As my cousin Ali (real name withheld for security purposes) peered out from under the tarp covering thirty refugees piled inside the pickup truck bed, he could see the lights of the Turkish border lighting the night sky. Suddenly, flashes peppered the darkness, with clouds of dust spitting into his face. Scrambling away from the vehicle and into the mountains, Ali winced at the whistling bullets shredding the ground around him. Hiding behind a rock under the moonlight, his face turned pale as he saw a wailing mother mourn her daughter’s death.
Ali was taken with the remaining survivors to a fortress built under a mountain called 'Máh-Ku', or “Where is the Moon?”.
This city was the same location where one of our Faith’s Twin Prophets, the Báb, was imprisoned from 1847-1848.
To this day, the Iranian government keeps a list of Baha'i's in Iran, monitoring the whereabouts of thousands even while they shop for groceries. During the two decades after the 1979 Revolution, over 200 Baha'i's were executed by the Iranian Government. Most were members of local or national Baha'i institutions. Some were kidnapped off the streets or from raids on homes only to never to be seen again or shot by a firing squad. Widows were pressured to reimburse the government for the price of the bullets that riddled their husbands’ bodies. Others have been held in solitary confinement for extended periods.
My rare gatherings with family members, who had been tortured or locked in solitary confinement, assume a more somber tone when everyone understands we may never see each other again.
Since its inception in the mid-nineteenth century, the Baha'i Faith has come under attack for its progressive beliefs like the equality of men and women, governance of religious affairs by law rather than religious clergy, and independent investigations by autonomous agencies to dig deep into truth. Alarmed by its spread, the Iranian government labeled our religion as a Trojan Horse of Western colonialism: a secret organization determined to destabilize Islamic theocracy.
The Iranian Revolution of 1979 has led to a continued escalation in government raids on Baha'i homes, businesses, and educational institutions. Baha'i's are administratively blocked from pursuing higher education, and the government has scapegoated the community, without reasonable justification.
As a member of the Baha'i religious community of Northern Virginia, I grew up surrounded by countless stories of friends and family fleeing religious persecution in Iran. These snapshots of escape attempts may sound like scenes out of a horror movie, but we share these stories to spread awareness that such abuses are still occurring even as you read this article.
Many local community members (Northern Virginia alone is home to 2,500 Baha'i's) share my concern for the remaining family members, and for the Baha'i community at-large still trapped in Iran.
Though the American-Baha'i community is high in numbers, it is even higher in unease—three Iranian-Baha'i's formerly imprisoned for a decade each in Iran have once again been unjustly and illegally imprisoned on the basis of their faith alone. My father narrowly escaped from the persecution with his parents just one week before the Tehran airport was bombed in 1980—my mother’s parents left before his.
Growing up in a Baha'i family, some of the earliest songs I sang were Baha'i prayers, and I met most of my childhood friends through Baha'i children’s virtue classes. These classes instilled in me a spirit of service for my local community, which continues to be a defining feature of my identity. Moving onto high school, college, and graduate school, I have since taught these classes, volunteered as a film editor at the Persian Baha'i Media Service, and helped coordinate food surplus deliveries at interfaith outreach events.
Despite learning more about the reality of Iran’s state-sanctioned persecution of minorities
studying religion at Dartmouth and as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, I have felt powerless to bring justice to the situation.
Fortunately, as United States citizens, we live in a democracy where power lies in numbers. On behalf of the Baha'i community, I urge you to protect religious freedoms and human rights from afar just as courageously as We The People enshrined such values in our constitution's First Amendment.
Though Baha'i's across the National Capital Region with family members still trapped in Iran could use some comfort during these times, making an impact requires more than prayer and companionship. Following Amnesty International’s encouragement of efforts to promote religious freedoms worldwide, we can request that our Senators co-sponsor Senate Resolution 183 (S.Res.183): “A resolution condemning the Government of Iran's state-sponsored persecution of its Baha'i minority and its continued violation of the International Covenants on Human Rights.” We can also request our Representatives co-sponsor the equivalent piece of legislation in the House of Representatives (H.Res.744).
We are living in an increasingly globalized world, where civic duty extends beyond man made borders. Our freedom of speech comes with an even greater responsibility to use it for good. Let our united voice of freedom ring around the world, and let our resolve be powerful enough to rend asunder the chains of religious persecution among Baha'i's in Iran and the shackles of pain binding the thoughts of their concerned family members living here in the United States of America.
About the Author
Cameron Sabet is a pioneering student of the Religious Studies BA/MA Program at the University of Pennsylvania. In the past, he has presented on the Bahá'í Faith at multiple conferences, including at a TEDx talk and at the Friends of Persian Culture Conference attended by thousands globally.