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  • Louis Venters

“Open-and-Shut Case”: Iran’s Bahá’ís and Religious Freedom at Home and Abroad

I’m pleased to share this post from the blog of the Religious Freedom

Project (RFP) at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, written by my colleague Naseem Kourosh, an attorney and policy advocate who is currently serving as the Human Rights Officer at the Office of Public Affairs of the Bahá’ís of the United States, located in Washington, D.C.

On the seventh anniversary of the unjust imprisonment of the seven informal leaders of the Bahá’í community in Iran—the country where the Bahá’í Faith was born and where its followers constitute the largest religious minority—Ms. Kourosh clearly outlines the relentless campaign of strangulation against the Bahá’ís since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and calls for continued pressure on the regime to extend basic human rights and civil liberties to all its citizens.

She says: “The oppression of Iran’s Bahá’í community—a non-violent, peaceful minority community that eschews partisan politics—is an open-and-shut case of persecuting people for their beliefs.”

Not only is the case of the Iranian Bahá’ís morally and legally clear, it is tied up with the whole question of human rights and civil liberties for the country as a whole. Ms. Kourosh states:

Many have noted that the Bahá’ís, as the favorite target of the regime, are something of a bellwether for the broader human rights situation. As one prominent Iran scholar stated, “Watch the fate of the Iranian Bahá’ís carefully. The day they are free to practice their religion without fear, Iranians at large will have finally secured their civil liberties.” The chair and co-chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom have likewise stated, “In the end, as go the Bahá’ís, so go freedom's prospects in Iran.”

This hits close to home. The Bahá’í Faith is also the largest religious minority in South Carolina, my home state. As I describe in part in my forthcoming book, from the religion's arrival in South Carolina in 1910 until at least the mid-1980s, neighbors, clergymen, the FBI, the Ku Klux Klan, and state and local officials targeted Bahá’ís for harassment, economic reprisals, and violence--particularly because their faith called them to practice social equality across the color line. It took decades' worth of effort for them to secure basic legal protections for the peaceful exercise of their religion.

More recent events leave no doubt that old prejudices—and their violent consequences—are alive and well. Just last week, an avowed white supremacist joined a Bible study in a historic African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston for an hour before opening fire and killing nine of those gathered. Only a few months ago, three Muslim students in nearby Chapel Hill, North Carolina were murdered by a neighbor who called himself an “anti-theist” and reveled in anti-Islamic rhetoric online. And the month before that, officials at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, bowed to anonymous threats and pressure from powerful Christians and reversed their earlier decision to allow the Islamic call to prayer to be heard from a chapel bell tower.

In the wake of these events, people of goodwill in South Carolina should be all the more attentive to assaults on freedom of worship, freedom of conscience, and freedom of peaceful assembly, here at home and around the world.

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