Baha'i cemetery in Sanandaj, Iran, attacked and partly destroyed16 December 2013
GENEVA — Among the many acts of persecution to which the Baha'is in Iran are being subjected, one of the most heartless is the wanton desecration of their cemeteries. Most recently, attackers have destroyed portions of the Baha'i cemetery in Sanandaj, Iran, which has in recent years been threatened by local authorities who have sought to raze the site and repossess its land. The attack follows recent efforts by local officials to reclaim the site, which had been officially allocated to Baha'is some 20 years ago.
Reports from Iran say the morgue, where bodies are washed, along with the prayer room, a water tank, and the walls of the cemetery were destroyed sometime in the morning on 12 December 2013.
"We don't have all the details about this attack yet, but it appears to have been the result of a government effort to confiscate the cemetery land and destroy its buildings and graves," said Diane Ala'i, the representative of the Baha'i International Community to the United Nations in Geneva.
"Baha'is hold the legal deed to the land, and have even won support from many of their Muslim neighbors for their efforts to beautify the property and its surroundings. At one point, they planted more than 250 trees there.
"But elements of the government have more recently sought to reclaim the property, even seeking a court order to raze the buildings and graves. The Baha'is of Sanandaj fought back in the courts but their protests have now apparently failed to protect their rights," she said.
Ms. Ala'i said there was little doubt the incident was stirred by religious hatred.
"Since 2005, there have been at least 42 similar such attacks on Baha'i cemeteries around the country, and the long battle in Sanandaj over this property has been tinged with anti-Baha'i overtones.
"Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, has promised to uphold civil rights for all Iranian citizens - and so we hope that he will now call for an immediate and official investigation into this, and to take action to restore the rights of the Sanandaj Baha'i community," said Ms. Ala'i.
Sanandaj is a medium-sized city of roughly 300,000 people in western Iran. The Baha'i community there has faced a number of attacks in recent years. In December 2011, government agents raided 12 Baha'i homes in Sanandaj, confiscating Baha'i books, computers, mobile telephones, and even children's diaries.
In 2007, the cemetery was vandalized and hate graffiti with messages like "Death to the Baha'is" and "Baha'is are unclean" was written on its walls.
Yet it is also true that Baha'is have also won considerable support from many in the community for their efforts to beautify the cemetery.
At one point, the Office of Natural Resources suggested that the Baha'is consider planting trees on public land adjacent to the cemetery, thereby expanding the green zone. As a result, the largely Sunni Muslim residents of Sanandaj came to respect the place as a symbol of the Baha'i community's peaceful presence in their city.
Only after this process of beautification did local authorities begin to reassert their claim to the land.