August 13, 2020

“My brother was arrested while he was in the military service by the security branch of the police.”

Milad, who asked to be identified by his first name, was telling a story of his life in Iran, seated at a table in the Kitchener Public Library lounge.

His brother was a good soldier, organizing the chaotic post he was assigned to.

“They dug into his background and found out he’s a Bahá’í, and they arrested him. So he was disappeared for a week or two; we didn’t know where he was.”

His commander’s story didn’t add up. Milad’s family kept pressuring the military.

“After two weeks when they realized that we were so serious about finding our family member, they sent him from that solitary confinement in the … the place that they use for interrogation and torture of people.” The authorities shuffled him to a military prison, then forced him to make up the time he’d spent in detention by lengthening his service.

That was one of the reasons Milad and his family — including his brother — left their homeland and came as refugees, via Turkey, to Canada. They’re Bahá’ís, members of a peaceful religion founded by a 19th-century Persian (Iranian) exile. They’ve often been persecuted in Iran. Under the theocratic regime in place since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, that persecution is policy.

The 1991 Iranian government memorandum, in Persian, outlining planned persecution of Baha'is
The 1991 Iranian government memorandum, in Persian. Credit: Bahá’í International Community.

In 1993, the UN’s special rapporteur on Iran obtained an Iranian government document from two years previous outlining a policy of persecution against Bahá’ís. It says, “They must be expelled from universities,” to “Deny them employment if they identify themselves as Bahá’ís,” and to “Deny them any position of influence, such as in the educational sector, etc.” Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei endorsed it in writing. Notably, it says, “They will not be arrested, imprisoned, or penalized without reason.” Yet as of June 2019, there were 49 Bahá’ís arbitrarily in Iranian captivity. The Bahá’í community has archived the memorandum and other discriminatory official documents online.

Between 1982 and 1984, over 1,000 Bahá’ís in Iran were arrested; in the two decades from 1978, more than 200 were executed by the government or murdered, most in the early ’80s, according to a Norwegian immigration dossier.

“They wanted to force us to convert back to Islam, or deny our faith,” Milad said. “After we refused to do that, they executed at least 200 people, including my own uncle, my dad’s eldest brother.”

About 10,000 Bahá’ís were fired from their public-sector jobs. Bahá’ís have been hounded from private employment or denied licenses to run businesses. They were banished from the universities and still face expulsion. Their cemeteries have been vandalized or destroyed. They face private violence. Still more have been arrested or jailed — more than 1,000 arrests again in the last 15 years.

“It’s something like the Jews’ situation in Nazi Germany, with the difference that they don’t have concentration camps,” Milad said.

Responding to a draft UN resolution calling on Iran to do more to uphold human rights, Iran’s diplomatic spokesperson, Abbas Mousavi, said in Nov. 2019, “The Islamic Republic of Iran, as a religious democratic system, has taken steps within the framework of national commitments and adherence to the Constitution, civil law and international obligations to promote and uphold human and citizens’ rights at national, regional and international levels, and is committed to following it in practice.”

Iran views western indictments of its human rights record as hypocritical and politically motivated, countering that sanctions against the country are “economic terrorism.”

Iran’s constitution doesn’t recognize the Bahá’í religion (only the three Abrahamic faiths and Zoroastrianism). That’s a problem for Iranian Bahá’ís.

IranWire, a Persian- and English-language news site critical of the Iranian regime, reported in Jan. 2020 that Bahá’ís had not been able to apply for new national identification cards for several months. The application form omits the former “other religions” category that had allowed Bahá’ís to apply without denying their faith, which is contrary to their doctrine. These ID cards are used, prominently, at banks, for major purchases and to apply for a driver’s license or passport. Bahá’ís who already have a card will soon face the same obstacle: they expire every seven years.

“Every aspect of our life, or Iranians’ life, is dependent on having this national ID card,” Milad said.

Recently, Canadian Conservative MP Kelly Block raised the denial of ID cards to Bahá’ís in the House of Commons. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau replied, “We will look to stand up for human rights at home and around the world at every opportunity, including holding the Iranian regime, and its violation of human rights, to account.” Canada presented the draft UN resolution on Iran in committee in November.

Milad left Iran long before the national ID card application changed. The persecution his family faced as Bahá’ís was more overt. His uncle was killed. His father’s cousin was jailed for five years. His brother was abducted by security. He lost a job, along with many other Bahá’ís, in a mundane commercial enterprise.

“You have a job until they find out you have a job,” he said.

Yet what Milad was most eager to talk about was Iranian Bahá’ís’ resistance network: not an armed camp or a political movement, but a school.

Like many Iranian Bahá’ís, Milad pursued postsecondary education (psychology and curriculum development) in the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), an underground university that now operates mostly online, chased from web address to web address by Iranian authorities, risking arrest by holding occasional classes in homes.

Five of Milad’s instructors, including Ramin Zibaei, Kayvan Rahimian, Kayvan’s brother Kamran and Kamran’s wife Faran Hessami, were jailed by the Iranian government. The stories of the latter three are featured in the 2014 documentary To Light a Candle, by Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari, who founded IranWire. (All four Bahá’ís have since been released.) A friend, Nasim Bagheri, “served in prison for five years in a very notorious place, the most unclean jail of Iran, just because she taught psychology to someone (else) like me,” Milad said.

A fellow Iranian Bahá’í emigrant and BIHE graduate, who asked to be identified as Shamila, said being barred from universities and jobs were the most significant persecutions she and those around her endured. Both her parents lost jobs, and at least two of her professors were arrested.

“In my heart, I always appreciate those dedicated teachers who did that for us, they helped us, they helped a generation or even two generations to survive that situation that the government tried to make for Bahá’í people,” she said. Most or all work without compensation, only the threat of prison.

The BIHE is a clear point of pride for Milad, Shamila and the Bahá’í community. It’s their whisper in the dark against all they’ve lost, that yet  there is hope for the generations to come, while the mind grasps it.

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