Members of the Baha’i faith are marking the seventh anniversary of the imprisonment of their community’s religious leadership in Iran this week. The community is perhaps the most visible target of the Islamic Republic’s much-criticized systematic persecution of religious minority groups, a campaign that has been ramped up under the leadership of moderate President Hassan Rouhani.
Events are planned around the world this week to call attention to the plight of the seven religious leaders who were arrested in 2008 on charges of espionage and “spreading propaganda against the regime,” accusations the community has decried as false. All seven leaders, who formed the entire membership of a group tending to the spiritual and social needs of the country’s 300,000-strong Baha’i community, were sentenced to 20 years in prison, the longest term of any prisoners of conscience in Iran, the Baha’i International Community’s news service reported.
A recent report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) found that religious freedoms in Iran continued to deteriorate over the past year, in defiance of Rouhani’s campaign promises to strengthen civil liberties for religious minorities. This decline has been especially stark where Baha’is are concerned, as dozens of members of the minority group have been arrested over the past year amid a growing campaign of anti-Baha’i rhetoric in pro-government media outlets.
The religious group’s international governing body condemned the situation in a letter to Baha'is in Iran earlier this month: "What the events of the past year have demonstrated ever more clearly to the people of Iran and others from around the world who promote peace and concord is the stark contrast between the peaceful intentions and selfless service of the Baha'i community and the lamentable and inhuman acts of those who, under the influence of ignorant religious prejudice, continue to perpetrate injustices against you."
Since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, authorities have executed more than 200 Baha’i leaders, while more than 10,000 have been dismissed from government or university jobs, according to the USCIRF report. Iran’s Shiite Muslim-dominated government views Baha’is, the country’s largest non-Muslim religious minority, as heretics and has long subjected the community to severe religious freedom violations.
The global campaign launched by the Baha’i International Community seeks to raise awareness of the situation, with Facebook pages in English and Persian set up as rallying points for planned events.