On three continents prominent Muslims denounce persecution of Iran's Baha'is, call for religious coexistence

June 17, 2014
Ayatollah Seyyed Hussein Ismail al-Sadr.

PARIS, France — In the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, prominent Muslims have spoken out recently against the persecution of the Baha'is in Iran, denouncing the religious intolerance that is the motivating force behind the oppression of that country's largest religious minority. Inspired in part by Iranian Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani, who recently issued a call asking specifically for "coexistence" with Baha'is, Ayatollah al-Faqih Seyyed Hussein Ismail al-Sadr, the most senior Shi'a cleric in Baghdad, Iraq; the Muslim Judicial Council of South Africa; and Dr. Ghaleb Bencheikh, Chair of Religions for Peace in France, have all praised Ayatollah Tehrani's action as both principled and courageous, endorsing his appeal for a fresh discourse on the shared values among different religions as part of an effort to promote harmonious coexistence.

In Baghdad, in an extended interview published online on 14 May 2014, Ayatollah al-Faqih Seyyed Hussein Ismail al-Sadr, founder of the Humanitarian Dialogue Foundation, said discussions about such shared values can help overcome dogmatism and fanaticism.

"All of us, before adhering to a certain religion, group, or doctrine, are human beings," said Ayatollah Sadr. "As such, we share many values, thought processes, and natural dispositions, which are the elements that allow us to come together and engage in a discourse that would give us a greater understanding of others, and thus gain a deeper understanding of each other, which, in turn, leads us to establish a harmonious coexistence."

In the interview, Ayatollah Sadr also addressed the question of the Baha'is. "The Qur'an addresses us all as 'children of Adam'," he said, "and according to Imam 'Ali, peace be upon Him, people are of two kinds – either your religious brother, or your equal in creation. I might not agree with followers of a certain religion, but that does not mean that I have the right to deprive them of their natural human rights or deny them their rights as citizens of a nation."

A poster featuring images of the seven imprisoned Baha'i leaders in Iran. Slideshow
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A poster featuring images of the seven imprisoned Baha'i leaders in Iran.

Ayatollah Sadr, who is well known for his efforts to promote dialogue among religious and secular groups, called for a "human discourse" about religious harmony and coexistence. His objective, he said, is to "engage in all discourses that contribute to the formation of a progressive humanity with a new vision that can build a healthy society, which, in turn, contributes to building successful nations."

Last October, Ayatollah Sadr issued a religious edict or fatwa concerning how Muslims should behave towards Baha'is, in response to a question posed to him by someone who noted that some Muslims believe that they should not have any interactions with Baha'is.

"God Almighty has ordered us to deal with all our brothers and sisters from other religions and faith with kindness, based in justice, mercy and love," he said. "Therefore, there is no objection to interacting and associating within the general human fundamentals between Muslims and their brothers from other religions and beliefs."

On 16 May 2014, the Muslim Judicial Council of South Africa issued a statement praising Ayatollah Tehrani's "noble act" which, it noted, accorded "due recognition to the Baha'i community". The Council also expressed hope that Ayatollah Tehrani's action would lead to "official recognition of the rights of this religious community whose aims and objectives are solely for peace and tolerance on earth for all".

And in Paris, in a video posted online, Dr. Ghaleb Bencheikh, a highly respected Muslim theologian and well-known in France for his promotion of interfaith activities and as the presenter of the weekly television program "Islam", commended Ayatollah Tehrani's "magnificent" gesture.

"I hope he will inspire others very soon," said Dr. Bencheikh. "It would be wonderful if he had ambassadors who spoke in his name. For the moment he has none, not that I know of in any case. Well then, we will proclaim ourselves as his ambassadors."

Condemning the persecution of Iran's Baha'is as being "in disdain of law" and "an intolerable scandal", Dr. Bencheikh urged that discourse on religious co-existence be carried forward. To this end he immediately arranged for a round-table event, jointly hosted by Religions for Peace and the Baha'i Community of France, to be held in Paris on 27 June, under the title: "Promoting religious co-existence – shared reflections in tribute to the action of Ayatollah Masoumi-Tehrani". Dr. Bencheikh has also raised the possibility of a larger such gathering to be held this coming winter.

"We should not lose hope," said Dr. Bencheikh. "The greatest cathedrals begin with a stone. This stone is laid. If you want men to fraternise, bring them together to build cathedrals. Here the cathedral is not a physical edifice. It is the cathedral of universal fraternity. So, then, it begins with a word, a gesture, a sign of friendship that we need to know how to build upon."