Naeim Tavakkoli last saw his father Behrouz three years ago in Tehran’s infamous Evin prison. Behrouz, a leader in among the 300,000 Iranians who follow the Baha’i religion, had failed to come home weeks earlier. Naeim, his mother, and brother searched hospitals and police stations but found no trace. Finally they were told Behrouz had been arrested by the Intelligence Ministry and were allowed to see him.
The three of them sat across from Behrouz on a small bench in a tiny room with two government agents standing behind them, watching and listening. “My father was slim, pale, with a long beard. They didn’t let him shave,” Naeim said in an interview with Maclean’s. “He was limping, wearing a jail uniform, not quite clean. Pajamas, basically.”
Naeim told his father he was moving to Canada, and his father wished him well. A few months later, Behrouz was released but Naeim was already in Ottawa, where he now lives. Behrouz later heard from his mother that his father had been forced to sit on a stool for 24 hours at a time and sleep on concrete. He developed kidney problems. But he was free, at least for a while.
Last May, Behrouz was arrested again. Security agents came at six o’clock in the morning. Naeim’s mother asked for time to pack her husband some warm clothes but was told he wouldn’t live long enough to need them.
Behrouz has been in jail ever since, part of an escalating crackdown on a religious minority that few outside Iran know much about. Six other Baha’i leaders were arrested last spring, five on the same morning as Behrouz. Five more were arrested in January, including Zhinoos Sobhani, who worked for the Organization for Defending Mine Victims and the Centre of Human Rights Defenders–both founded by Iran’s Nobel Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi. These arrests are in addition to the everyday discrimination suffered by Baha’is. They are not permitted to attend university, and their cemeteries are regularly ransacked.
Mohamad Tavakoli, a professor of history and near and eastern civilizations at the University of Toronto, says that there has been longstanding enmity on the part of Shia religious authorities toward Baha’ism, a monotheistic religion that originated in Persia during the 19th century. This hostility increased following the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and has become particularly severe under the presidency of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his emphasis on the messianic strains of Shia Islam.
The Baha’i are not the only religious minority of Iran. Several thousand Iranians follow the pre-Islamic Zoroastrian religion. In Esfahan, easily Iran’s most beautiful city, the trendiest cafés are in the Christian Armenian quarters, where young Muslims also gather to talk and flirt. There are at least 20,000 Jews in Iran, more than in any other Middle Eastern country save Israel itself. They are occasionally persecuted, usually because of trumped-up connections to Israel. But there is little grassroots anti-Semitism. Many of the merchants on Shiraz’s main street are Jewish, and synagogues require no security–unlike, say, in Paris. Iranian Jews, like Christians, have official minority status and are guaranteed representation in the country’s parliament.
The Baha’i have no such protection. Whereas Christians and Jews are recognized as “people of the book,” the Baha’i are seen as heretics and political subversives.
“Baha’ism has become scapegoated as a religion,” Tavakoli says. “With the emergence of political Islam, Baha’ism has been cast as a religion that contributes to the disintegration of, and has been used to bring down Islam.”
The founder of the Baha’i faith, Bahá’u’lláh, died in Palestine and has his tomb in what is now Israel, where it is an important place of pilgrimage. Iranian authorities use this connection to denigrate the religion “They cast Baha’ism as the handmaiden of Zionism, whereas Baha’is were in the Holy Land before a lot of the European Zionists came there, and were there before the establishment of the state of Israel,” Tavakoli says.
Naeim says the Iranian government, which effectively controls the media and uses it to whip up hatred, drives much of the anti-Baha’i hostility. “The people are good,” he says. But he also recalls that as a boy religious teachers in his school would tell other students that Baha’i were unclean, and he would sit on the floor with his fellow students afraid to come too close lest they accidentally brush against him. When he had the opportunity to come to Canada he seized it, joining the thousands of Iranian Baha’i who have immigrated here.
He knows that the Baha’i have been persecuted since their religion was founded–and his father has been arrested before as well. But he fears that the oppression of Baha’i in Iran is reaching a new intensity. He worries about the wave of arrests, the destruction of cemeteries, as if a people’s history itself can be erased. “We don’t know what’s going to happen next,” he says. “They don’t want to leave a trace of anything Baha’i.”