By Katrina Lantos Swett, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Katrina Lantos Swett is the chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The views expressed reflect those of USCIRF and not CNN.
With Iran’s presidential election looming next month, ongoing uncertainty about the status of its nuclear program, and questions about the degree of its involvement in Syria’s civil war, it’s easy to forget the domestic repression some groups face under its theocratic regime. But as Baha’i communities across the globe mark a disturbing anniversary in Iran, the birthplace of their faith, they are determined that the rest of the world should also know about the hardship and discrimination they are faced with every single day.
Throughout the month, Baha’is have engaged in a global campaign titled simply “Five Years Too Many,” on behalf of the so-called Baha’i 7 – the Baha’i leaders imprisoned in Iran for the past five years on account of their faith. I was honored to have the opportunity to address gathered supporters earlier this month when the campaign came to Washington, D.C.
Who are the Baha’i 7? Since May 2008, six of them have been jailed on baseless accusations ranging from espionage to “corruption on the earth.” The seventh was arrested and imprisoned in March of that year. Along with other Baha’is jailed on equally groundless charges, these leaders testify to the abuses visited upon the 300,000 members in Iran of this peaceful faith.
Since Iran’s 1979 revolution, which ushered in a theocracy, no group has been immune from repression. But as documented in this year’s report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which I chair, none have suffered more than the Baha’is, whom Tehran labels as heretics.
As noted in the report, since 1979, the authorities have killed more than 200 Baha’i leaders and dismissed more than 10,000 from government and university jobs. Baha’is are also barred from establishing schools, places of worship, or independent religious associations. Their marriages and divorces are not recognized; they have problems obtaining death certificates; they may not inherit property. Baha’i cemeteries, holy places, and community properties are often seized or desecrated, and many Baha’i religious sites have been destroyed.
In addition, Baha’is are banned from the military and, across Iran, they often are denied employment.
Articles in the government-run newspaper Kayhan and other media outlets, meanwhile, have vilified the Baha’i community.
An October 2011 report by the Baha’i International Community, “Inciting Hatred: Iran’s Media Campaign to Demonize Baha’is,” highlighted the ceaseless drumbeat of anti-Baha’i propaganda.
“They are accused of being [imperialist] agents,” it said. “[T]hey face…utterly unfounded allegations of immorality; they are branded as social pariahs…The propaganda is shocking in its volume and vehemence, its scope and sophistication, cynically [targeting]…a peaceful…community whose members are striving to contribute to…society.”
Emboldened by Iranian law and policy, extremists have assaulted Baha’is and launched arson attacks against their property in several cities. The authorities claim they cannot find the perpetrators, yet these same officials seem to have no problem finding innocent Baha’is to arrest, detain, and incarcerate. Since 2005, they have arrested nearly 700 Baha’is. By the end of 2012, at least 110 were being held solely because of their beliefs, ten times the number in 2005.
Dozens await trial while others – all of whom are seeking appeals – have been handed prison sentences ranging from 90 days to several years. More than 500 Baha’is have cases pending, despite their release from detention.
Sadly, officials have managed to stoop to new lows in recent months, with the government jailing babies less than a year old with their Baha’i mothers at least three times in the town of Semnan. One had to be hospitalized outside of jail because of a lung disease contracted by unsanitary conditions inside. The three mothers and their infants remain incarcerated.
Baha’is in Iran have done no harm to their country, pose no threat to its people, and seek only to live in peace and worship in accordance with their conscience. As June elections approach, the world should demand that Iran free all Baha’is and drop the charges made against them on account of their faith. Iran should rescind every law permitting Baha’is to be killed with impunity, and Baha’is should be allowed to practice their faith fully.
For the sake of every dissenting Iranian, the world must stand together and proclaim with one voice that Iran must free the Baha’i prisoners and allow liberty for all.