Persecution faced by Bahá’ís in Semnan has included arson attacks and graffiti carrying death threats.

The Bahá’ís of Semnan - A Case Study in Religious Hatred

A Community Under Fire

At first glance, the alleged crimes that sent Adel Fanaian to prison for six years in May 2012 seem particularly grave. They include “mobilizing a group with the intent to disturb national security” and “propaganda against the sacred regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

But a more careful reading of the court record shows Mr. Fanaian was convicted for participation in activities that, in any other country, would be perfectly legal and even quite praiseworthy. His endeavors included organizing regular worship for his religious community, overseeing the development of morals classes for children and youth, and helping young people obtain a college education.

Mr. Fanaian’s severe punishment for his efforts – all aimed at trying to hold together the much-beleaguered Baha’i community– is but one of a series of harsh prison sentences that were handed down to Baha’is here in May 2012.

Also that month, three other Baha’is in Semnan were sentenced to imprisonment on similar charges. Pouya Tebyanian received six and a half years, Faramarz Firouzian four and a half years, and Anisa Ighani four years and four months. Her husband, Siamak, is already serving time in prison and her incarceration will leave their two young children without resident parents. He had been convicted in 2008 of “membership in illegal groups” and “propaganda activities in favor of Bahaism” for his practice of the Baha’i Faith.

Two young Baha’i women – Roufia Beidaghi and Jinous Nourani – were also recently given one year prison terms. They have both been sentenced to a notoriously dangerous and overcrowded jail where the sexual assault of younger prisoners is reportedly common.

Over the past four years, Baha’is in Semnan have faced raids, arrests, and imprisonments at the hands of government officials; their businesses have been subjected to arson and graffiti attacks or shut down altogether; their cemeteries have been vandalized; their beliefs have been attacked in the media and from the pulpit of mosques. Perhaps most ominously, their children have been denounced in the city’s schools.

Since 2009, at least 34 Baha'is have been arrested, some 27 Baha'i-owned businesses have been closed by authorities, and more than a dozen Baha'i homes and businesses have been hit by arsonists.

This bleak situation is not confined to Semnan. Baha’is are facing particularly severe oppression in a number of other cities, including Abadeh, Aligudarz, Bukan, Isfahan, Ivel, Khorramabad, Laljin, Mashhad, Parsabad, Rafsanjan, Ravansar, and Shiraz. What makes Semnan significant is the depth, breadth and intensity of attacks in a small area, sustained over a number of years. Moreover, the widespread and coordinated nature of the attacks on Baha’is in Semnan could only be accomplished with government encouragement and permission. The recent intensification there seems to indicate a new level of activity to enforce more strongly the government’s long-established policy of discrimination against Baha’is.

“What makes Semnan distinctive is the depth, breadth and intensity of attacks in a small area, sustained over a number of years,” said Bani Dugal, the principal representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations.

“It is a case study in modern persecution: an example of how official and semi-official elements in an Iranian municipality – including the police, the courts, local officials, and the clergy – can be coordinated to completely oppress a minority community,” said Ms. Dugal.

“The widespread and coordinated nature of the attacks on Baha’is in Semnan could only be accomplished with government encouragement and permission. The recent intensification there, seems to indicate a new level of activity to enforce more strongly the government’s long-established policy of seeing that the progress and development of Baha’is are blocked.”

The current phase of persecution against the Semnan Baha’is started in late 2008 with reports that a series of widely publicized anti-Baha’i seminars and rallies had been organized in the city. One, held at the Semnan Red Crescent society theater, analyzed the supposed link between the Baha’i Faith and Zionism, a common anti-Baha’i propaganda theme.

Within weeks of those rallies, on 15 December 2008, the homes of some 20 Baha’is were raided by authorities at dawn. Baha’i materials, computers, and mobile telephones were seized. Nine Baha’is whose homes were raided were arrested, one at the time of the raids and eight more later, all on entirely false or illegal charges relating purely to their peaceful practice of the Baha’i Faith. “Evidence” gathered in those raids has sent several Semnan Baha’is to court and ultimately prison.

A spate of related episodes followed:

  • Starting in 2009, there have been numerous incidents of arson or vandalism against Baha’i homes, businesses, and the cemetery. While many of these were undertaken by apparently anonymous individuals, all signs point to official sanction and, likely, the use of plainclothes agents. These incidents have often been accompanied by the spray-painting of anti-Baha’i graffiti on buildings with slogans such as “Death to Baha’is.”

  • Accompanying these attacks have been increased efforts by local authorities to destroy the livelihood of Baha’is. This has included a decision in early 2009 by the Chamber of Commerce and some 39 associated trade unions to prohibit the issuing of business licenses or managerial permits to Baha’is and to decline to renew existing ones. Most recently, two factories with Baha’i-ownership interests were shut down in May 2012 – causing not only about 17 Baha’is but also at least 42 Muslims employees to lose their jobs. Overall, the closure of some 27 Baha’i businesses has deprived some 110 families of their main livelihood.

  • Muslim clerics have been invited to give presentations in Semnan classrooms that insult the Faith. In some cases, Baha’i schoolchildren have been segregated from their classmates. On at least two occasions, Muslim students were encouraged to physically hurt Baha’i students.

  • Intelligence agents have stepped up their surveillance of Baha’is in Semnan, following them everywhere, apparently as a form of psychological pressure. This heightened monitoring has reportedly caused Baha’i children to live in constant fear that their parents will be arrested.

These incidents tell of a systematic effort to goad the population in Semnan into violence so that the government is able to protest that the activities and beliefs of the Baha’is themselves are responsible for stirring up “the people.” This effort is also clearly designed to give authorities a free hand to act with impunity against Baha’is, either directly or indirectly.

The Baha’is have made wide-ranging efforts to bring all of these injustices to the attention of the relevant authorities and to seek redress. In virtually every case, they have been rebuffed, further evidence that the government condones these attacks.

In recent years, moreover, it appears that the government has begun to experiment with increasingly violent methods. This has come not only in the form of rising arrests and imprisonment but also in the incitement of hatred against Baha’is, with a resulting increase in personal attacks, arson, vandalism, and hate graffiti. Such attacks often appear to be initiated by ordinary citizens, although there is considerable evidence of involvement by government agents, either directly or through agitation.

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