Five Year Sentence For Educating Students In Iran

Seven Baha'i Educators Sentenced In Iran

I am saddened to hear from BWNS that seven innocent members of the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE) detained for several months in Iran have just been sentenced to four or five year prison sentences by a Revolutionary Court in Tehran. Vahid Mahmoudi, Kamran Mortezaie, Ramin Zibaie, Mahmoud Badavam, Farhad Sedghi,  Riaz Sobhani and  Nooshin Khadem were helping to provide educational courses to Baha’i youth prevented from entering higher education due to their membership of the Baha’i Faith.


Death Sentence For Changing Religion In Iran

Youcef Nadarkhani and family

I am saddened by the continuing persecution of Christians in Iran.

The Baha’i International Community has joined the call for the release of Youcef Nadarkhani, a Christian pastor from Rasht, Iran. Pastor Nadarkhani, who is the father of two young children, leads a network of house churches. He was found guilty of apostasy – “turning his back on Islam” – and “converting Muslims to Christianity,” and sentenced to death in September 2010. Iran’s Supreme Court recently asked for a re-examination of the case to establish whether or not he had been a practising Muslim adult before he converted to Christianity. The court ruled he was not but, nevertheless, is still guilty of apostasy because he has Muslim ancestry. The case has sparked strong condemnation from governments, organizations and religious leaders around the world.


Human Rights Lawyer Detained In Iran

Abdolfattah Soltani

I am very concerned about the recent detention of Abdolfattah Soltani – a leading human rights lawyer in Iran. Mr Soltani has been detained since the 10th September. He is part of a legal team defending a number of Baha’is on trial for providing higher education to their community. He is a brave defender of human rights in Iran and my best wishes and prayers are with him and his family at this difficult time.

Denied Right To Burial As A Baha’i In Iran

In an outrageous new incident of religious discrimination, authorities in the city of Tabriz, Iran, have refused to allow Baha’is to bury a relative in accordance with Baha’i law – and instead have promised to entomb the deceased woman without a coffin under Muslim rites.  “To anyone who understands the culture of the Middle East, the idea that the government would force a family to bury their loved one according to the rites of another religion is beyond the pale,” said Diane Ala’i, the representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations in Geneva. She noted that according to Baha’i rites of burial, the deceased must be interred in a coffin, whereas under Muslim law, no coffin is used.  “This incident demonstrates the almost unbelievable length to which Iranian authorities are willing to go to express their prejudice and animosity against Baha’is,” she said. The incident began on Monday when authorities in Tabriz told the family of Mrs. Fatemeh-Soltan Zaeri that they would be unable to bury her in the local cemetery according to Baha’i law. Instead, they said, she would have to be interred according to Muslim customs. The family objected, noting that the cemetery has always been accessible to members of all religions in the area to bury their dead as they wished. In response to this protest, authorities demanded that Mrs. Zaeri be buried without a coffin – and they withheld her body for 48 hours, preventing them from taking her body somewhere else. Yesterday, when the family member contacted cemetery authorities again, pleading that her body be released so they could bury her elsewhere, they were advised that she would be buried on Thursday anyway, without a coffin, in a Muslim ceremony – and that only her husband would be allowed to be present.

Source: BWNS

Baha’is In Iran: Cultural Genocide

A poster published by human rights supporters depicting BIHE staff members detained in Iran

I am shocked by the campaign of cultural genocide pursued by Iranian authorities against the Baha’i community in Iran. The latest phase is an attempt to destroy community educational programmes set up because Baha’i youth are excluded from state-run institutions. BWNS reported on the 22nd May that

A coordinated series of raids have been carried out on the homes of several Iranian Baha’is, active in a community initiative to provide a higher education programme for young members who are barred from university. Initial reports indicate that raids took place yesterday on houses in Tehran, Karaj, Isfahan, and Shiraz. As many as 30 people may already have been arrested…All of the targets were homes of individuals closely involved with the operations of the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education…The Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE) was established in 1987 as a community initiative to meet the educational needs of young Baha’is who have been systematically denied access to higher education by the Iranian government. The BIHE has been described by the New York Times as “an elaborate act of communal self-preservation.”


Arrested For Helping Earthquake Victims

Iranian authorities have arrested a number of Baha’is who provided education to children in a region devastated by an earthquake seven years ago. The Baha’i International Community has so far been able to confirm the arrest of four Baha’is this month in connection with the provision of kindergarten-level education in Iran’s Kerman Province, south-east of Tehran. Two other Baha’is from the city of Kerman were also arrested on Sunday 13 March. Their involvement in education projects has not yet been confirmed. “More than 26,000 people died and one in five teachers in the city of Bam reportedly lost their lives in the 2003 earthquake,” said Diane Ala’i, representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations in Geneva. “These Baha’is were offering a vitally needed service to children whose education system had been all but completely destroyed.” Last week, the Iran Student News Agency, reported that the prosecutor-general of the revolutionary court in Bam announced that a “number of Baha’is” had been arrested for “promoting their programs under the guise of kindergartens in Bam, Kerman and Tehran.” Mohammad Reza Sanjari claimed that Baha’is “took advantage” of the need for cultural, social and educational measures following the earthquake. “This latest round of arrests is yet another example of the widespread, and intensifying, religious persecution being carried out by Iran against its 300,000-strong Baha’i minority,” said Ms. Ala’i. “This and other recent actions suggest that the authorities will stop at nothing to keep Baha’is away from Muslims, even when the Baha’is are providing a service to those in their society in desperate need.”  Three Baha’is from Isfahan – including two 18 year olds – were also arrested earlier this month while teaching children.  They were subsequently released.  Some 79 Baha’is are currently being held in prison in Iran.

Source: BWNS

Brutal Conditions For Imprisoned Baha’is

I am saddened to hear more worrying news from Iran.

Iran’s seven imprisoned Baha’i leaders have been transferred to more brutal sections of their prison complex. In the case of the two Baha’i women, the circumstances of the move have raised concerns that it may have been orchestrated as a means of creating an insecure environment that threatens their lives. The Baha’i International Community has learned that one of them – Fariba Kamalabadi – has already been physically threatened by inmates since being sent to the notorious Section 200 of Gohardasht Prison.”Apparently, the atmosphere is highly charged in this section, and there is a great deal of tension and animosity among the inmates,” said Bani Dugal, the principal representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations. Mrs. Kamalabadi was transferred to Section 200 on Saturday 12 February, along with Mahvash Sabet.”It is difficult to be certain about the reason for the move,” said Ms. Dugal. “However we believe that, since their arrival at Gohardasht, the Baha’i women – despite their own extremely challenging situation – have nonetheless been a constant source of comfort and hope to other inmates. The prison authorities apparently became alarmed that the two women began to receive signs of respect from a growing number of prisoners. As a justification for the increased harsh treatment, the authorities accused the two of teaching the Baha’i Faith.”

Source: BWNS

HRW World Report 2011 Cites Human Rights Abuse In Iran

I have just read the Human Rights Watch World Report 2011 and it paints a bleak picture of the situation in Iran.

The government denies adherents of the Baha’i faith–Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority–freedom of religion. In August the judiciary convicted seven leaders of the national Baha’i organization to 20 years each in prison; their sentences were later reduced to 10 years each. The government accused them of espionage without providing evidence and denied their lawyers’ requests to conduct a prompt and fair trial. Iranian laws continue to discriminate against religious minorities, including Sunni Muslims, in employment and education. Sunni Muslims, about 10 percent of the population, cannot construct mosques in major cities. In 2010, security forces detained several members of Iran’s largest Sufi sect, the Nematollahi Gonabadi order, and attacked their houses of worship. They similarly targeted converts to Christianity for questioning and arrest. The government restricts cultural and political activities among the country’s Azeri, Kurdish, and Arab minorities, including the  organizations that focus on social issues. Sexual minorities also face a precarious situation. Law enforcement and judiciary officials discriminate, both in law and in practice, against Iran’s vulnerable lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities. Iran’s penal code criminalizes consensual same-sex acts, some of which are punishable by death. During the past few years, a steady stream of LGBT Iranians has sought  refugee status in Turkey and are awaiting resettlement in third countries.

Source: Human Rights Watch

UN Condemns Human Rights Abuse In Iran

In December the United Nations once more condemned human right abuses in Iran.

By a vote of 78 to 45, with 59 abstentions, the UN General Assembly confirmed a resolution that expressed “deep concern at serious ongoing and recurring human rights violations.” In more than two decades of such resolutions about Iran, the vote passed with one of the highest percentages ever. The resolution specifically expressed concern over Iran’s “intensified crackdown on human rights defenders and reports of excessive use of force, arbitrary detentions, unfair trials and allegations of torture,” as well as its “pervasive gender inequality and violence against women,” and its discrimination against minorities, including members of the Baha’i Faith. “The world community has clearly spoken. It is outraged at Iran’s continued and intensifying violations of human rights,” said Bani Dugal, the principal representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations. Welcoming the result Ms. Dugal noted that the resolution documents a wide range of violations, from torture to the oppression of women to the persecution of minorities. “All of this has been going on for too long, and it is high time that Iran pays heed to the call of the international community and complies with the standards of international law,” she said. The resolution devoted an entire paragraph to Iran’s treatment of members of the Baha’i Faith, cataloging an extensive list of recent anti-Baha’i activities. These included: “increasing evidence of efforts by the State to identify, monitor and arbitrarily detain Baha’is, preventing members of the Baha’i faith from attending university and from sustaining themselves economically, the confiscation and destruction of their property, and the vandalizing of their cemeteries…” It also expressed concern over the recent trial and sentencing of seven Baha’i leaders, saying they were “repeatedly denied the due process of law.”

Source: BWNS

‘The Immortal Phoenix’

The firebird is a recurring motif in world mythology from the Phoenix of classical times referred to by the Roman poet Ovid to the mythical Garuda of Ancient India.

In Iranian legend the ‘Simurgh’ (or ‘Angha’) is a magical bird so long lived that it is considered to be the wisest of all God’s creatures. (The name ‘Simurgh’ has been seen as meaning ‘thirty birds’- perhaps a reference to it’s majesty). In one form of the legend the Simurgh is said to live for over a thousand years before being consumed by fire. I find this an interesting reversal of the legend of the Phoenix which finds it’s rebirth in fire instead.

The Simurgh is a common reference in both classical and contemporary Persian literature.  Arguably the most notable appearance is in Ferdowsi’s ‘Shahname’ (or ‘Book of Kings‘) where Prince Zal- cruelly abandoned on Mount Alborz -is raised by the kindly Simurgh.

In the poems of the Sufis the Simurgh is often used as a symbol for God. An example of this is the poem’ Conference of the Birds’ by the 12th Century poet Farid ud-Din Attar. This poem concerns the quest of a flock of birds for the wondrous Simurgh. The poet describes the Simurgh luring creatures siren-like to it’s nest  and consuming them (arguably a metaphor for Sufi ideal of being ‘consumed’ by the beloved).

This literary tradition continues in the writings of Bahá’u’lláh with a reference to the ‘immortal phoenix’ which can be read as a metaphor for the soul.

‘O immortal phoenix! dwell not save on the mount of faithfulness. Therein is thy habitation, if on the wings of thy soul thou soarest to the realm of the infinite and seekest to attain thy goal’.

‘O SON OF SPIRIT! Burst thy cage asunder, and even as the phoenix of love soar into the firmament of holiness. Renounce thyself and, filled with the spirit of mercy, abide in the realm of celestial sanctity‘.

I personally also see ‘the immortal phoenix’ and ‘the phoenix of love’ as references to Bahá’u’lláh’s station as a spiritual educator of humankind and was interested to find `Abdu’l-Bahá make this connection explicit when he wrote-

‘O phoenix of that immortal flame kindled in the sacred Tree! Bahá’u’lláh’

This is a particularly rich metaphor as the mythical Simurgh is pictured as an agent of purification and fertility; like the great spiritual educators the Simurgh is also described as uniting both ‘earth’ and  ‘heaven’ as a messenger.

Jailed For Helping Underprivileged Children

Haleh Rouhi, Sasan Taqva and Raha Sabet, taken into custody on 19 November 2007. They are beginning the final year of a four-year sentence, handed down for their participation in an education program for underprivileged children in and around the city of Shiraz.

Despite compelling evidence that they never committed a crime, three Iranian Baha’is today begin their fourth year in captivity.The two women, Haleh Rouhi and Raha Sabet – and Mr. Sasan Taqva – were arrested in May 2006, along with some 51 other Baha’is and a number of Muslim friends, for their participation in an education program for underprivileged children in and around the city of Shiraz. While their 10 Muslim co-workers and one Baha’i with learning difficulties were released immediately, the remaining Baha’is were convicted of “indirect teaching of the Baha’i Faith.” Ms. Rouhi, Ms. Sabet and Mr. Taqva received four year jail terms. The other 50 were given one year sentences, suspended pending their attendance at mandatory Islamic classes. It is believed that today, after three years, they continue to be held under the harshest of conditions in a temporary detention center.

Source: BWNS

Recent Discoveries In Mithraic Archaeology

Some time ago I posted about the ancient Romano-Persian religion of Mithraism which is undergoing a modern revival. Over the last decade or so many ancient ‘Mithraea’ or temples of Mithra have been excavated- in places as far apart as Iraq and Hungary. Most of these temples were built in the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. which is considered the golden age of Mithraism in the Roman Empire.  A chronology of excavations at these sites is listed below-

April 2010: After decades of controversy, a long-closed sanctuary of Mithras was finally reopened. This Mithraeum is located in the Rhodope Mountains in the town of Thermes on the border between Greece and Bulgaria. Because of the tensions between Communist Bulgaria and Greece in the 20th century, the site’s excavator, Bulgarian archaeologist–and eventual prime minister–Bogdan Filov, conducted no further enquiries into the site after his initial foray in 1915. So far, the findings merely consist of a sacred spring and a sculptured relief. Bulgarian officials have called for increased Greek involvement in a further investigation, which will lead to a planned tourist venture in the area. Interestingly, Bulgarian archaeologist Nikolay Ovcharov identified the veneration of rocks as a cultic ritual that was part of this Mithraic complex, resonating with the story of Mithras’s rock birth.

April 2010: Archaeologists discovered the remains of a Mithraeum in Angers, northwestern France. First constructed in the 3rd century A.D., the temple is located inside a domus, or Roman house. The temple was probably destroyed in the 4th century, as evidenced by shattered statues and signs of burning. It contains remains of a relief depicting Mithras with torchbearers and of a worn head of the god, distinguished by his Phrygian cap. The offerings included about 200 coins. Other artifacts found include Nubian terracotta figurines, a brooch, and a deer-shaped pouring device with three holes in its throat, perhaps used in an unknown rite. Unfortunately, because the area is due to be razed for housing, archaeologists may not have much more time to excavate.

2009: A Mithraeum was found in Iraq in the northern province of Dohuk. The prayer space in this Mithraeum faces the sun, says Hassan Ahmed Qassim, Dohuk’s director of antiquities. Such a location seems apt, considering Mithras was a solar deity. Qassim says that the Mithraeum’s discovery is important in understanding the historical transformation of the region. While this area was never under official Roman rule, Dohuk may have come under its influence.

2009: An Italian farmer outside Rome discovered a giant marble relief of Mithras on his property. Dating from the 2nd century, the relief had been excavated illegally. Made of Tuscan marble, it originated in the Etruscan city of Veio, about 12.4 miles from Rome. At the time, Italian police believed thieves planned to smuggle it to Japan or China through the United Arab Emirates. Weighing more than 3,000 pounds, the relief was to be sold for 500,000 euros.

2008: A Mithraeum was discovered under a modern shopping mall in Szombathely in northwestern Hungary by archaeologist Peter Kiss. This temple is the first example for Mithraism in Szombathely, though evidence for the cult has appeared elsewhere in Hungary. Thus far, the excavated area consists of an outer room and an entranceway. The temple burned down in the 4th century, as evidenced by pieces of ceiling and wall paintings found on the floor. Currently, an artistic restorer is working to recreate the shattered paintings, which used expensive pigments in their construction.

003: A Mithraeum was discovered in Lugo, called “Lucus Augusti” in Roman times, in northwestern Spain. While examining a manor house, or pazo, in an area under consideration for building expansion, workers found the Mithraeum. As it turned out, the pazo was on top of an old Roman residence. Historian Jaime Alvar theorized that the temple’s cult niche was destroyed during the Mithraeum’s construction. The temple was most active in the 3rd and 4th centuries. A granite altar found was dedicated by one C. Victorius Victorinus, who calls himself a “centurion of the Seventh Legion” in the inscription. The inscription dubs Mithras “invictus,” or “unconquered,” allying him with Sol Invictus.

2000: Daniele Manacorda of Roma Tre University found another Mithraeum in Rome, located in the Crypta Balbi at the southern end of the Campus Martius. This Mithraeum was built in the early 3rd century and used until the late 4th century. The temple has the typical Mithraic structure, though the cult niche has not yet been found. A fragment of a third-century tauroctony was discovered.

1998: Archaeologists excavated a Mithraeum at Hawarti in Syria; initial forays were made into the building the 1970s, but not completed until the ’90s. Underneath what was a Christian basilica in the 4th and 5th centuries A.D., the Mithraeum was revealed when the basilica floors collapsed. By dating date of coins, pottery, and lamps to the mid-4th century A.D., archaeologists have proposed that this Mithraeum is the latest constructed of those yet found. Roger Beck characterizes the iconography of the Hawarti wall paintings as “all over the place.” He adds, “There are these strange, strange figure[s] of Mithras holding…naked, black demonic figures by chains.” He suggests that this scene represents evil overcome by good, personified by Mithras.

1993: Construction workers were clearing an area in Martigny, southern Switzerland, for apartment buildings, when, to their surprise, they found a Mithraeum built between A.D. 150 and 200. A long room with benches on either side, this Mithraeum has a podium at the end for a tauroctony and other votive objects. Dedicatory offerings here ranged from coins to an earthenware vase bearing a Greek inscription from one Theodoros to the Greek sun god Helios. This offering reinforces the notions of Mithras’s worship under various epithets.

Source: Archaeology

Legal Experts Question Iran Baha’i Judgement

Not surprisingly experts have questioned the legality of the recent judgement against innocent members of the Baha’i Faith in Iran.

On 8 August it was reported that seven Iranian citizens – Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeid Rezaie, Behrouz Tavakkoli, Vahid Tizfahm and Mahvash Sabet – had been sentenced to 20 years in prison. These sentences have since been reduced to 10 years. The seven previously constituted the informal leadership of the Bahá’í faith in Iran and their case has attracted international attention. We write to express our serious concerns about questions of due process that have arisen since their arrest in 2008 and throughout their detention, trial and sentencing.

We understand that the seven were detained without a writ being addressed to them. They were then held in solitary confinement for between 105 and 175 days. These prolonged detentions, prior to any trial, are unacceptable by any standard of due process. At the trial the charges included “spreading corruption on earth”, “propaganda against the Islamic order”, and “espionage, co-operation with Israel”. We understand no evidence was produced to support these charges, and that no written verdicts have been delivered. The seven are reported to have had one hour of time with their legal representatives. The charges and the sentences appear to be motivated solely by the fact that they are members of the Bahá’í faith. We urge the authorities to respect Iran’s obligations under international law and, moreover, that Iran conducts the subsequent appeal of the seven in accordance with these obligations as well as its own laws.

Rosalyn Higgins QC Former international judge

Linda Lee President, Law Society

Mark Muller QC Chairman, Bar human rights committee


‘Conscience And The Spirit’

The founder of the Unitarian Church in Transylvania Ferenc Dávid (1510 – 15 November 1579) is quoted as saying

There is no greater mindlessness and absurdity than to force conscience and the spirit with external power, when only their creator has authority for them.

These words seem particularly apt when applied to the situation of the Baha’is in Iran who are being cruelly persecuted for their beliefs. What is the point in using physical power to force outward conformity when ultimately it is a spiritual matter between an individual’s conscience and God?

‘The Spirit Of Cyrus’

I am interested to learn that an ancient treasure the Cyrus Cylinder is to be loaned to Iran from the British Museum.  It has been seen by some scholars as a kind of proto-declaration of human rights. If this is the case then hopefully some of this spirit will touch the Iranian authorities and they will allow the Baha’i Community to practice their faith in peace.

UN Panel Concerned By Repression Of Baha’is In Iran

A United Nations panel of experts has expressed concern over Iran’s continued repression of ethnic and religious minorities, including members of the Baha’i Faith.. the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) questioned why Iranian minorities – such as Arabs, Azeris, Balochis, Kurds and Baha’is – are so poorly represented in Iran’s public life. The Baha’i International Community has welcomed the panel’s findings that categorize Iran’s persecution of Baha’is as a matter of discrimination based on race, ethnicity or religion.“This finding is important because it represents the opinion of a body of international experts on discrimination – including many from countries that are friendly to Iran,” said Diane Ala’i, the representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations in Geneva.

Source:  BWNS

Support Expressed For Baha’is Imprisoned In Iran

It is heartening that the  international community is vocal in its support of seven innocent Baha’is unjustly imprisoned in Iran.

An increasing number of governments, human rights groups and prominent individuals are raising their voices against the harsh prison sentences handed down earlier this month to Iran’s seven Baha’i leaders. As lawyers for the prisoners prepare to appeal against the 20-year jail terms, the government of New Zealand has voiced its concern that the trial “was conducted in a manner that was neither fair nor transparent.” “New Zealand is dismayed that Iran has failed to uphold its international human rights commitments, and its own due legal processes in this case,” said Foreign Minister Murray McCully. “The sentences appear to be based wholly on the fact that these people are members of a minority religious group,” said Mr. McCully, in a statement issued on 20 August. “New Zealand calls on the Government of Iran to protect the fundamental rights of all its citizens, and to end its ongoing and systematic persecution of the Baha’i,” he said. The governments of Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, United Kingdom and United States of America – as well as the European Union and the President of the European Parliament – have already condemned the sentencing of the seven. In the wake of calls from numerous international organizations for the prisoners to be released, groups focused specifically on human rights abuses in Iran –  such as the Human Rights Activists News Agency and United4Iran – as well as Amnesty International, have now launched letter-writing campaigns encouraging supporters to call for justice for the seven. Prominent individuals, including British barrister Cherie Blair, have also been raising their voices in support of the Baha’i leaders. Minority Rights Group International (MRG) – which campaigns on behalf of disadvantaged minorities and indigenous peoples – has expressed it deep concern over the lengthy sentences. “Given that independent observers were not allowed to attend the trial, and the history of persecution that the Baha’i community has faced in Iran, the outcome will do nothing to encourage faith in the Iranian justice system,” said Carl Soderbergh, MRG’s Director of Policy and Communications. “MRG calls on Iran to quash the convictions and release the defendants immediately,” Mr. Soderbergh added.

Source: BWNS