Dr Brendan McNamara: No respite for Iran’s largest religious minority in time of coronavirus

While many religious groups have suffered discrimination during the Islamic Republic’s 41-year rule of Iran, Bahá’ís are widely considered the most persecuted, writes Dr Brendan McNamara
Dr Brendan McNamara: No respite for Iran’s largest religious minority in time of coronavirus
Firefighters disinfect a shopping centre in northern Tehran. Despite a potential second wave of coronavirus infections (new cases have averaged around 2,500 a day since the start of June) a new wave of arrests has targeted at least 77 Bahá’í’s.	Picture: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP
Firefighters disinfect a shopping centre in northern Tehran. Despite a potential second wave of coronavirus infections (new cases have averaged around 2,500 a day since the start of June) a new wave of arrests has targeted at least 77 Bahá’í’s. Picture: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

While many religious groups have suffered discrimination during the Islamic Republic’s 41-year rule of Iran, Bahá’ís are widely considered the most persecuted, writes Dr Brendan McNamara

ON May 13, Simon Coveney, the Tánaiste and foreign affairs minister, replied to a parliamentary question from his constituency colleague, Michael McGrath, on rising concern regarding persecution of Bahá’ís in Iran and asked whether the minister would make a statement.

In his written response, the Tánaiste commented on the discriminatory practices with respect to employment, education, and access to other basic services, which affect Bahá’í’s and other minority groups in Iran. He went on to reiterate that Ireland continues to call for the end to the persecution of members of the Bahá’í Faith in Iran, including through co-operation with our EU partners and at the UN.

Ireland, he said, has consistently raised the discriminatory treatment of the Bahá’ís in Iran at the Human Rights Council in Geneva and through bilateral contacts.

Ireland will continue, he concluded, to call upon Iran to ensure full respect for its international human rights obligations and take all necessary steps to protect the rights of ethnic and religious minorities.

While many religious groups have suffered from discrimination during the Islamic Republic’s 41-year rule of Iran, Bahá’ís are widely considered to be the most persecuted; in the words of former UN human rights special rapporteur for Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, “Bahá’ís are the most persecuted religious minority in Iran”.

Worshippers wearing protective face masks and gloves offer Eid al-Fitr prayers outside a shrine to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, May 24, 2020.  (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Worshippers wearing protective face masks and gloves offer Eid al-Fitr prayers outside a shrine to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, May 24, 2020.  (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

The Bahá’ís, Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority, have been under particular pressure since the 1979 Islamic revolution. A secret memorandum approved by Iran’s supreme leader, brought to light by UN officials in 1991 -and still operative-, revealed a blueprint for the state-sponsored repression.

The “progress and development” of the Bahá’í community should be “blocked” the document states. Consequently, Bahá’ís were barred from attending university, prevented from access to many professions, have suffered arbitrary arrests and imprisonment, confiscation of property, and even the destruction of their cemeteries.

The overall strategy is to suffocate and suppress an entire indigenous community, simply as an outcome of extreme religious prejudice. It is a prejudice which affects not only Bahá’ís but also, according to human rights organisations such as Amnesty International, Christians, Sufis, and others regularly suffer for their beliefs or religious practice. In all cases of human rights abuse, statistics belie the real hardship suffered by ordinary people of all ages.

Sohaila Samimi Loftus, an Iranian Bahá’í who has lived for many years in Cork, spoke recently about the hardship visited upon families and the very real fears she has for relatives still living in Iran. “You never know when the knock will come on the door,” she said. “If you have started a business of some kind, because you cannot get into so many trades and professions, you can’t be sure that today the authorities will not come to close you down.

“Perhaps worst of all, if a loved one dies you cannot be sure where they can be buried. Cemeteries where generations of Bahá’ís have been interred have been confiscated and in some cases bulldozed into oblivion. It’s a regime of fear. Generally, Bahá’ís try to keep their spirits up — they are not the only ones suffering and look to see how they can contribute in a positive way.”

A city worker disinfects a bus stop sign because of the new coronavirus in Tehran, Iran, Thursday, March 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
A city worker disinfects a bus stop sign because of the new coronavirus in Tehran, Iran, Thursday, March 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Now, despite a potential second wave of coronavirus infections (new infections in Iran have averaged around 2,500 a day since the beginning of June) a new wave of arrests has targeted at least 77 Bahá’í’s across the country. Furthermore, prisoners previously released because of the pandemic are being summoned back to jail. And all this despite the fact the virus is spreading in Iranian prisons.

Instead of responding to concerns and explaining its actions, authorities are content to step up the public defamation of the Bahá’ís through an increasingly co-ordinated spread of disinformation. Television channels, newspapers, radio stations, and social media have been saturated with articles and videos denigrating Bahá’í beliefs, and all the while, Bahá’ís are denied the right of reply. More than 3,000 articles of anti-Bahá’í propaganda were recorded by the Bahá’í International Community so far this year, the figures doubling from January to April.

No one who has seen the new BBC programme with Samira Ahmed, The Art of Persia, can fail to be moved by the beauty and wonders of Iranian art and civilisation. Likewise, its people are rightly famed for their culture and attainments. But can any society truly flourish if it denies the human rights of sections of its population? If every member of society does not have the possibility to thrive, to contribute, surely all are poorer and there can be no real progress. In a time when consciousness of our interdependence is proving vital to stem the tide of a pandemic, what is happening in Iran makes even less sense than usual.

Dr Brendan McNamara is a member of the national administrative body for Bahá’ís in Ireland and a part-time lecturer in the Study of Religions Department at University College Cork.

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