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Outwardly a typical post-religious Canadian of indeterminate Christian heritage, Susan incubated spiritual longings. She surprised us when she announced she was not only embracing the Baha’i faith, but marrying the American, Iranian-born uncle of her best friend, whose parents were leaders of the Montreal Baha’i community.
That was my introduction to Baha’is and their religion.
I learned that the Baha’i faith — founded in the 19th century as a heretical offshoot of Shia Islam — offers a benign belief system, promoting admirable values, such as universal literacy and high educational aspiration, and is generally respectful of both secular and religious knowledge within a democratic and egalitarian mode of self-governance.
Baha’is are casteless, generally open-minded (they actually promote inter-racial marriage) and — believing there are many paths to God — pluralistic in spiritual outlook. They tend to be rigourously non-partisan and pacifistic. A well-integrated and undemanding minority wherever they congregate, with no expansionist political goals, they typically seek neither government entitlements nor special accommodation from society.
Who could possibly resent, fear or hate this blameless global community of a mere five-million apolitical souls?
In a word: Iran.
Western Baha’is were alarmed to learn that on Aug. 2, a group of seven Baha’i leaders in Iran, arrested in May on false accusations of bombing a mosque in Shiraz, have “confessed” to operating an “illegal” organization with ties to Israel and other countries.
Other Baha’i leaders have categorically rejected any such suggestion. Given the precepts and track record of the faith — and the character of the Iranian regime — most observers will have little difficulty deciding whom to believe.
These Baha’is, confined — with no formal charges laid — in Teheran’s infamous Evin Prison, have been denied access to attorneys for 11 weeks. The son of one of them, Behrouz Tavakkoli, is presently a student at the University of Ottawa. He fears for his father’s life.
With good reason. Baha’is are 300,000 strong in Iran (the birthplace of the Baha’is’ founder, Baha’u’llah). But their community’s security has always remained fragile at best, in some cases summoning to mind the Jews’ situation under the Nuremberg Laws in 1930s Germany. Under the 1991 Golpaygani directives (named for the secretary of Iran’s Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council), Baha’is’ employment was curtailed, while some were denounced as Zionist agents and tortured.
Iran’s Pahlavi shahs (1927-79) visited relatively light and sporadic abuse on Baha’is, although even in that comparatively tolerant era their schools were frequently closed and their sacred texts banned.
Ayatollah Khomeini and his mullahs ratcheted up the persecution. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, over 200 Baha’i community notables have been killed outright or “disappeared,” including 10 women whose “crime” was to teach religion to children. Islamist hostility continues to provoke a state of internal community crisis, graphically illustrated in the current witch hunt.
Ironically, the bitter news of the recent (doubtlessly forced) confessions follows on the heels of an announcement early in July that the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO had named two Baha’i shrines in Israel of “outstanding universal value” as world cultural heritage sites.
The official classification puts the Baha’is’ northern Israel holy places, housing the tombs of both Baha’u’llah and his spiritual antecedent, the Bab, among humankind’s most awesome creations: the Great Wall of China, the Vatican, the Old City of Jerusalem, the Taj Mahal, Stonehenge and the Pyramids, as well as the sadly Taliban-demolished Bamiyan Buddhist statues in Afghanistan.
Canada is doubly linked to this great honour. The World Heritage Committee announced the new ranking from Quebec City. And the Baha’i shrines were designed by Montreal architect William Sutherland Maxwell, who also designed the Chateau Frontenac tower, Quebec City’s most recognizable landmark.
The Baha’is are peaceable contributors to every society they’ve settled in. They are perfectly safe and at home among Jews in Israel, and among Christians in the West. So what is Iran’s problem? What have the Baha’is done to deserve the wretched treatment that country metes out to them, and when will those innocent Baha’i leaders in Evin Prison be freed?
I called the Iranian embassy in Ottawa to pose these very questions. The telephone rang and rang and rang. But nobody answered.