Ever since the Baha’i Faith was founded in Iran in the mid-nineteenth century, its members have been the victims of episodic persecution. At least 4,000 of its earliest followers were killed by those who viewed the nascent Faith—known then as the Babi movement—as heretical to Islam. Moreover, the use of Baha’is as a convenient scapegoat for all the regime’s woes is part of a historical pattern of justifying authoritarianism through the construction of imaginary enemies against which the populace must unite in uncritical obedience to their leaders.
During the 20th century, periodic outbreaks of violence against Baha’is continued, with the government often using them as a scapegoat. In 1933, for example, Baha’i literature was banned, Baha’i marriages were not recognized, and Baha’is in public service were demoted or lost their jobs. In 1955, the government oversaw the demolition of the Baha’i national center in Tehran and many Baha’i homes were plundered after a radical cleric began broadcasting anti- Baha’i rhetoric on national radio.
While most of these previous episodes of persecution were the response of a secular government to pressures of the religious clergy and the political factions they influenced, the coming of a genuine theocracy in 1979 changed everything for the worse for Baha’is.
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iranian Baha’is have faced a government-sponsored, systematic campaign of religious persecution in their homeland. In its early stages, more than 200 Baha’is were killed and at least 1,000 were imprisoned, solely because of their religious beliefs.
In the early 1990s, the government shifted its focus to social, economic, and cultural restrictions aimed at blocking the development of Iran’s Baha’i community. Such measures included efforts to deprive Baha’is of their livelihood, to destroy their cultural heritage, and to prevent their young people from obtaining higher education.
The government’s long term strategy to destroy the Baha’i community without attracting undue international attention was cruelly outlined in a secret 1991 memorandum that explicitly aimed at establishing a policy regarding “the Baha’i question.”
Drafted by the Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council, the document calls for a series of social and economic measures that are nothing less than a blueprint for the strangulation of the Baha’i community.
Stamped “confidential,” the document was prepared at the request of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the then President of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The memorandum was signed by Hujjatu’l Islam Seyyed Mohammad Golpaygani, Secretary of the Council, and approved by Mr. Khamenei, who added his signature to the document.
The memorandum came to light in 1993, when it was released in connection with a United Nations report on Iran’s human rights. The memorandum specifically calls for Iran’s Baha’is to be treated in such a way “that their progress and development are blocked,” providing conclusive evidence that the campaign against the Baha’is is centrally directed by the government.
The document indicates, for example, that the government aims to keep the Baha’is illiterate and uneducated, living only at a subsistence level, and fearful at every moment that even the tiniest infraction will bring the threat of imprisonment or worse.
The memorandum says, for example, that all Baha’is should be expelled from universities; that they shall be denied “positions of influence,” and instead only be allowed to earn “a modest livelihood as is available to the general population”; and even that they are to be denied “employment if they identify themselves as Baha’is.”
The memorandum also spells out the conditions under which Baha’is can be arrested and imprisoned, offering a rationale for such arrests without raising undue international attention. The docu ment states that Baha’is “will not be arrested, imprisoned, or penalized without reason.” While that may at first glance seem reasonable, the upsurge in arrests and imprisonments that have followed make clear that the real issue is to ensure that when Baha’is are arrested, some sort of charges—which are inevitably false—will be attached, giving the appearance of due process.
In the years since the memorandum was written, the Iranian Baha’i community has experienced increasing persecution in the manner it outlines. Baha’is have been detained, imprisoned, and charged with “spying,” among other false accusations. They have been denied access to education and to sources of livelihood. And they have been stripped of all influence in Iranian society and deprived of their right to religious freedom.
Efforts to “block” the development of the Baha’i community have included the razing of Baha’i sacred sites. In recent years, contrary to increasing demands among Iranians for equality among all citizens, the government has instead intensified its repression.
In 2008, the government arrested and imprisoned the entire national Baha’i leadership on false allegations that they were spying for Israel and other wrongful charges. As of this writing, they are serving 20-year sentences, the longest sentences of any current prisoners of conscience in Iran.Return to top