Iran's Bahai community fear rise in persecution
- 3 July 2010
- From the section Middle East
First there are the images of wooden beams on fire. Then buildings come into view, some without windows and doors, others reduced to rubble.
The shaky mobile phone footage posted on YouTube by Iranian human rights activists shows scenes of destruction filmed secretly from inside a car.
The activists say the footage shows the results of an attack on the properties of Bahai residents in Ivel, a village in northern Iran.
They also say that non-Bahai residents supported the demolitions.
Bahai groups outside Iran have also received eyewitness reports from Ivel.
The witnesses said that several days before the bulldozers moved in, some people in the village signed a petition demanding the expulsion of their Bahai neighbours.
Many Bahais had left already: a number of families had fled previous attacks on Bahai property in Ivel. In 2007, for example, six houses were torched.
However, this time the Bahais left in the village complained to the police in the nearest town, Kiasar.
The police denied that there was a petition against them and refused to provide any protection.
The reports from Ivel residents say that by June 22, almost 50 houses belonging to Bahais had been flattened.
Bahais have lived in the area in Iran's Mazadaran province for more than 100 years, says Diane Alai, the representative of the Bahai community at the UN in Geneva.
Bahai groups warn that life is becoming harder and harder for the 300,000 followers of the religion in Iran.
They say they have noticed an increase in the persecution of Bahais since the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
It has not been this difficult for Bahais since the early years of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Bahai representatives say.
The Bahai faith emerged after a split in Shia Islam in the 19th Century. It was founded in Iran - but it has long been banned in its country of origin.
The Bahais consider Bahaullah, born in 1817, to be the latest prophet sent by God.
Followers of the faith have faced discrimination in Iran both before and after the 1979 revolution.
The religion was not recognised by the post-revolutionary constitution, and its followers have limited rights under Iranian laws.
For example, Bahais are banned from working in government offices, and they are not allowed to study at university.
Iranian inheritance laws do not apply to Bahais, and Bahai businessmen are often denied a licence to set up shop.
Bahai cemeteries have also been desecrated.
The leadership of Iran's Bahai community - five men and two women - have been in jail for more than two years.
They have have been accused of spying for Israel - a common charge against Bahais, whose international headquarters is in the Israeli port of Haifa.
"Their crime is that they are Bahais and they say they do not want to change their religion," says lawyer and Nobel peace prize laureate Shirin Ebadi.
Ms Ebadi fled Iran after her own life was threatened.
Now human rights activists fear that the discrimination against Bahais is intensifying and that history is repeating itself.
Nearly 300 members of the faith have been executed so far - mostly in the first few years of the revolution.
Some Bahai leaders were executed shortly after the revolution. Others were arrested and have not been heard of until today.
"We call them the years of horror," one Bahai woman told the BBC. She did not want to be identified.
Bahai organisations say that their religion has six million followers across the world.
Their teachings have not gone down well with many mainstream Muslims, who see the Bahai faith as an affront to Islam. Some even call the Bahai blasphemous.
But there has been pressure on Iran to improve the plight of its Bahai community.
Some senior Shia clergymen - although uncompromising when it comes to theology - say Bahais must be given basic rights and treated like citizens.
"They are members of mankind," says Mohsen Kadivar, an Islamic scholar at Duke University in North Carolina.
"As such they should be treated humanely and in accordance with the rights of citizens and basic human rights."
Before his death last year, Iran's Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, the most senior authority on Shia Islam, issued a fatwa in favour of Bahais.
He called on the Iranian government to grant followers of the religion basic civil and political rights.
There has also been diplomatic pressure on Iran.
When 56 member states of the UN Human Rights Council condemned Iran's human rights record in February, they specifically mentioned the discrimination against the country's biggest religious minority.
Mohammed Javad Larijani, head of the human rights council of the Iranian judiciary, defends court action against the religious group.
"Bahais have to answer to the courts in Iran because they engaged in cult-type activities contrary to the the most basic human rights of the people," Mr Larijani told the UN Human Rights Council.
Kasra Naji's documentary about the long history of persecution of Iran's Bahai is being broadcast on BBC Persian TV from 1 to 4 July.