Iqaluit Baha’is fear for Iranian counterparts

“It’s gotten really bad now”

By JIM BELL

Members of Iqaluit’s Baha’i community say their co-religionists in Iran may soon face a wave of brutal repression, and are joining Baha’is across Canada in a campaign aimed at drawing attention to their plight.

“As difficult as things used to be, after the revolution, it’s gotten really bad now,” said Svetlana Lapshina, a member of Iqaluit’s Baha’i community.

Since 2005, Iranian newspapers controlled by the state have published dozens of libellous articles claiming that the Baha’i faith is controlled by “Zionists” and by foreign powers such as Russia, Britain and the United States.

Many of these articles have been published in Kayhan, a Tehran newspaper whose managing editor is appointed by Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Khamanei. They appear to have been published for the purpose of inflaming public opinion in a country where anti-Western and anti-Semitic feelings are easily aroused.

“It gives them an excuse to manipulate the facts. And if the information is not freely available and the truth is not really told in its entirety, then people are left believing in speculation,” Lapshina said.

Taravat Ostovar, an Iranian Baha’i who now lives in Iqaluit, said the last time such a campaign of vilification occurred in Iran, the country’s 300,000 Baha’is suffered intense persecution.

That was in the early 1980s, when about 200 Baha’is were murdered or executed by the state, and thousands more were arrested and imprisoned, some for long periods of time.

The repression eased a little in later years, even though discrimination against Baha’is in Iran continues as a routine fact of life.

“Baha’is are already deprived of higher learning, good jobs, and many other basic human rights, things like inheritance, bank accounts, access to health care. Now it looks as if it is getting worse,” Lapshina said.

Within the past year, Baha’is in Iran have been harrassed and arrested for trivial offences, such as engaging in voluntary educational activities.

About 60 prominent Baha’is were arrested in 2005. Last month, 54 Baha’i youth were arrested in the city of Shiraz.

“Inside the country they’re just relying on their faith and trying to be loyal to the government, but there is still more persecution and arresting of the Baha’is,” Ostovar said.

The Baha’i faith orginated in Persia, as Iran was then called, in the 1840s. After 1979, when a revolution led by an ultra-conservative group of Shiite Muslim clerics overthrew the country’s longstanding monarchy, Iranian Baha’is lost virtually all their civil rights.

Iranian Baha’is are not allowed to send their children to university. For that reason, many are emigrating to Western countries such as Canada or the United States.

“My family was denied their right to higher education and were not able to get good high paid positions. My parents decided to leave,” Ostovar said.

That’s because Iran’s religious leaders do not recognize the Baha’i faith as a legitimate religion. They consider the Baha’i faith to be an “apostasy” — or a heretical form of Islam. In Iran, apostasy is a crime that may be punishable by death.

“Any time a Baha’i is arrested they are immediately put on trial and the impending verdict is always the death penalty, but because of the intervention of the international Baha’i commmunity, in most cases, the sentences were softened up a little bit to indefinite imprisonment, life or 25 to 30 years,” Lapshina says.

In December of 2005, Dhabihullah Maharami, a Baha’i prisoner serving a 10-year sentence, died under mysterious circumstances.

Though Iran’s theocratic regime has never given recognition to the kinds of human rights that are taken for granted in most Western nations, the current campaign of repression is taking place at a time when gross violations of human rights are occurring far more frequently in Iran than in earlier years.

In July of 2003, Zahra Kazemi, a dual Iranian-Canadian citizen, died inside Tehran’s brutal Evin prison after being arrested for taking pictures of a demonstration. She is believed to have been tortured, raped and beaten to death.

This past April, another Canadian citizen, Ramin Jahanbegloo, was arrested after publishing articles that criticized positions taken by the country’s president. Many observers believe he’s being interrogated to extract a “confession.”

But unlike other dissident groups in Iran, Baha’is do not engage in acts of protest, other than letter-writing.
Ostovar said that’s because it is Baha’i policy to obey the laws of the country where they reside, and to stay out of politics.

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