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Baha’i Community (Iran)

Volume 551: debated on Wednesday 24 October 2012

Freedom of religion and freedom of conscience are issues on which I have placed significant emphasis in my work at Westminster. I believe and the evidence shows that societies that respect those fundamental human rights also tend to fare better in their protection of other human rights. I have therefore worked with Open Doors —an organisation focused on freedom for the persecuted Christian Church. However, I recognise that freedom of religion and conscience must extend to people of all faiths and none—a point that was convincingly reinforced by the Under-Secretary during a recent meeting that I hosted looking at the experiences of Christians in the Arab world. At that meeting, members of the Baha’i community in the UK shared their concerns about the continuing persecution of Baha’is and other religious minorities in Iran. I want to focus on that issue today.

My personal contact with the Baha’i community predates my election to Parliament, extending throughout my chairmanship of Belfast city council’s good relations partnership and my term as lord mayor of the city. Although it is a relatively small religious community in Northern Ireland, many of its members play a very active and prominent role in civic society and in peace building in Northern Ireland. Through that, I became more aware of the extent to which they are a community that continues to suffer religious persecution in the faith’s country of origin.

Many hon. Members will be aware of the long-standing persecution of the Baha’is in Iran—a matter raised in a debate on 11 January 2012 by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman). Today, while focusing specifically on the persecution of Baha’is in Iran, I think that it is worth noting that the systematic and aggressive manner in which the Baha’is are persecuted is reflected in wider persecution of other religious and cultural minorities in Iranian society.

The human rights situation in Iran has worsened in recent years, and the specific treatment of religious minority communities, including Sunni Muslims, Christians and Baha’is, has deteriorated further, as exemplified by the sentence of capital punishment threatened against Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, an Iranian Christian. That deterioration is also documented in the recent UN “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran”. It details the treatment of Iranian Baha’i, Christian and Dervish communities. Members of all three religious minorities have been subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention and the curtailment of their freedom of assembly. Members of the Dervish communities have also undergone torture and prosecution, with their property being attacked and confiscated by the authorities. I therefore contend that the protection of human rights, especially the freedom of religion and of conscience sought by the Baha’is, would also benefit other minority religious traditions.

Does the hon. Lady agree that Iran’s record on human rights generally is appalling, and does she consider that its persecution of the Baha’is is an attempt to wipe out the Baha’is as a group and their religion?

I think that that is absolutely right. Certainly, the memorandums that have been circulated by the Government there indicate that that is their eventual aim and objective. I want to come on to that.

Two recent reports—one issued by the UN Secretary-General and the other by the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran—offer the most current and in-depth analysis of Iran’s human rights record. Dr Ahmed Shaheed, the special rapporteur, expressed concern about

“inconsistencies in the country’s legal framework, capricious implementation of the rule of law, and tolerance for impunity”.

He characterises the trend with regard to religious freedom as “disturbing”, noting:

“Members of both recognized and unrecognized religions have reported various levels of intimidation, arrest, detention and interrogation that focus on their religious beliefs.”

The Secretary-General observes that since his last report on Iran to the UN Human Rights Council, “human rights violations” have

“continued, targeting in particular journalists, human rights defenders, and women’s rights activists… Discrimination against minority groups persisted, in some cases amounting to persecution.”

Both reports refer to one religious minority community in Iran—the Baha’is.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate; my constituency in Milton Keynes is home to a significant Baha’i community, and its members are grateful for the fact that she has been able to do so. In addition to the persecution that she has already outlined, is she aware that there is particular targeting of Baha’i-owned businesses in Iran and that people are going in daily to try to strangle the livelihood of those businesses and force them out of business?

I am aware of that. Indeed, I am very conscious of the fact that the economic exclusion of Baha’is from society in Iran is part of the Government’s approach to the persecution that they undertake, but it also affects those who are not Baha’i, who are often employed in those businesses and also lose their jobs as a result.

The persecution of Iranian Baha’is has a lengthy history going back to the inception of their religion. Many Baha’is were arrested or killed following the 1979 revolution. Denial of the right of freedom of religious belief shifted in the early 1990s to social, economic and cultural restrictions, to which we have referred and which have blocked the development of the 300,000-member community through the deprivation of livelihood, the destruction of cultural heritage and the obstruction of young people’s access to higher education. In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of Baha’is arrested and detained for religious reasons. It went from four in 2004 to 109 in April 2012. It is estimated that 116 Baha’is are in prison today for their faith.

The special rapporteur’s report speaks first of “serious discrimination” against the Baha’i community in Iran, expressing alarm about the

“systemic and systematic persecution of members of the Baha’i community, including severe socio-economic pressure, and arrests and detention.”

The entire Baha’i community is subject to identification and monitoring by agencies of the Iranian state, as mandated by a confidential directive authored by the head of the Iranian armed forces in 2005. Baha’i schoolchildren are monitored and slandered by officials in schools, and those who openly declare their religion when pressured to deny their faith may be expelled from schools and universities.

On 31 May 2012, in a joint statement, a number of human rights organisations expressed concern about the systematic deprivation of and discrimination against the Baha’i in institutes of higher education, in violation of the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights. Hundreds of Baha’i students have reportedly been banned from entering public and private universities. That denial of access to education at primary, secondary and tertiary level actively contributes to the long-term economic and social exclusion of Baha’is in Iranian society.

The special rapporteur’s report also deplored the Government’s tolerance of an intensive defamation campaign aimed at inciting discrimination and hatred against Baha’is. That propaganda asserts that Baha’is have recruited members by irregular means or acted against national security, in collaboration with the west or with Israel. Attempts by the Iranian Government to link religious belief to subversive political views have created a hugely potent sectarian mix, highlighted in “Inciting Hatred: Iran’s media campaign to demonise Baha’is”—a report of the Baha’i International Community, published in October 2011. Contrary to the propaganda, the Baha’i community is committed to non-violence and non-partisanship.

Fears are rising among international experts on ethnic, racial and religious cleansing that wider and more violent attacks against the Baha’i community may be forthcoming. That is based on the situation that has been developing in recent years, including the emergence of Government documents that display the intention to identify and monitor all the activities of the Baha’is and all their contacts.

In March 2006, a United Nations official publicly disclosed a letter, dated October 2005, from Iranian military headquarters instructing state intelligence services, police units and the revolutionary guard to make a

“comprehensive and complete report of all activities”

of Baha’is

“for the purpose of identifying all individuals of this misguided sect”.

Since 2005, a vigorous campaign has been waged in the state-run news media against the Baha’is, and the targeting of their children for harassment and abuse by teachers and administrators in the schools system throughout the country has occurred, against the backdrop of a general upsurge in violence against Baha’is and their properties. In March and May 2008, the structure of the religion was more directly targeted with the arrest and imprisonment of the seven national-level Baha’i leaders.

Reports of the condition of one Baha’i community in the city of Semnan may offer a case study in the worsening trajectory of persecution facing Baha’is. Semnan is a town of 125,000 people, east of Tehran. It is home to a Baha’i community of several hundred people. During the past three years, reports from Semnan have demonstrated mounting evidence of an orchestrated effort to escalate significantly the persecution of Baha’is in the town. They have been subjected to arson attacks on homes and businesses and the forced closure of Baha’i-owned businesses, including the raiding and sealing of two factories in May 2012, leading to the denial of employment for 53 individuals, a significant proportion of whom were not Baha’i.

Since 2009, at least 30 Baha’is have been arrested and detained, 26 of whom have been sentenced to prison terms. The authorities have facilitated a campaign of incitement to hatred against them, which has seen the distribution of anti-Baha’i pamphlets, the use of anti-Baha’i rhetoric in Friday sermons in Semnan mosques and, perhaps most disturbingly of all, schoolchildren being targeted for insults, mistreatment and even physical violence. Fellow pupils have been encouraged by teachers to hurt their Baha’i classmates physically, and administrators have sought to segregate Baha’i students from their peers.

The Baha’i community of the UK is therefore deeply concerned that the Iranian authorities are using Semnan as a training site for refining and improving their methods of oppressing Iranian Baha’is nationwide. The goals of that campaign appear to be aligned with an infamous Government policy memorandum from 1991, which effects a policy of the extirpation of every Baha’i community in Iran. The memorandum states that the Government’s dealings with the Baha’is must be conducted in a way that blocks their progress and development. It goes on to give clear instructions for the expulsion of Baha’is from higher education and for Baha’i children to be enrolled only in schools with

“a strong and imposing ideology”.

It also instructs that individuals who identify themselves as Baha’i be denied employment.

I thank the hon. Lady for bringing the matter to the attention of the House. I have had frequent meetings with Peter Black from the Baha’i community in my constituency about such issues. This House and country are very good, both domestically and in their representations, on the issue of the persecution of the Baha’i in Iran. Does she believe that the EU could do more as a whole to press Iran to stop the persecution and prevent the ultimate destruction of the Baha’is there?

The international community can do a huge amount, and the EU has to play its role in that. The Government have shown great leadership, and I am about to make specific requests based on where they can show further leadership.

The situation is clearly grave, and the treatment of the Baha’i community is an indicator of the lengths to which the Iranian authorities are willing to go in the persecution of religious and cultural minorities. It is hugely important that the Government continue to speak with a strong voice on the international stage about human rights, of which freedom of religion and conscience are key. That is why I want to raise my concerns with the Minister today.

I thank the hon. Lady for bringing this matter to Westminster Hall today. I have a significant and strong Baha’i community in Newtownards in my constituency. Members of that community have expressed concerns to me over the medical treatment of those who have been imprisoned. Does she agree that when someone with medical conditions is living in a cramped cell, those medical conditions worsen? Can the UK Government and the Minister in particular do something on that?

That is a valid concern, which I hope will be addressed in what I ask the Minister and the Government to do.

The debate is timely, because the UN General Assembly third committee is reviewing Iran’s human rights record this week in New York, so, as I draw my remarks to a close, I have two specific requests. First, ahead of the UK co-sponsorship of a resolution on human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, will the Government make every possible effort to win support for the resolution from the widest representation of UN member states and to ensure that the resolution is adopted with the largest possible majority and thus carries the maximum weight of international opinion?

Secondly, in light of the reports by the Secretary-General and the special rapporteur, to which I referred earlier, will the Foreign Secretary request, as a matter of urgency, that the United Kingdom’s mission to the UN specifically raise the situation of the Baha’is in Iran at the dialogue of the third committee, with the special rapporteur on Iran and the special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, on 24 and 25 October, respectively? In doing so, the Government would not only place the sustained abuse and persecution of the Baha’i community in Iran in the international spotlight, thus creating pressure for that to end, but hold out hope to many people around the world, of all faiths and of none, that religious persecution will not go unseen or unchallenged by the international community and that the cause of religious freedom and freedom of conscience will have a strong, international advocate in the UK Government.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I thank the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) for the way in which she put her points across and congratulate her on securing the debate. I recognise what she said at the beginning of her speech; she has a long record of engaging with such matters and of encouraging those of minority faiths in Northern Ireland to work with others. Her record with Open Doors, which I know very well, and other organisations is consistent in seeking religious freedom for many different faiths in often difficult contexts. For that reason in particular, it is a pleasure to thank her for what she has already done and to respond to the debate. I thank the other hon. Members, who share such concerns, for the impressive turnout from both sides of the House.

As the hon. Lady made clear, the treatment of the Baha’i community in Iran is appalling, as is the wider human rights situation. That any state can treat its religious minorities in this way is shocking, and all the more so given the religious underpinning of the current regime and its oft-stated claim to respect human rights. What the hon. Lady set out clearly today is only a small part of the daily struggle of ordinary Baha’is and the continual and serious abuses they suffer in Iran. Sadly, such experiences are all too familiar to me; I have stood before the House on many occasions to express my deep concern and have met on a number of occasions representatives of the community in the UK who display their support for those in Iran.

In a sense, the hon. Lady and others have made the point that the issue is indivisible. Today, we are talking about the Baha’i community in particular, but we know that we could be talking about other minorities in Iran. An indivisible link brings all together—a attack on one is clearly an attack on all.

To set some context on Iran: there have been more than 300 executions so far this year; more journalists and bloggers are imprisoned there than in any other country in the world; numerous human rights defenders and lawyers languish in prison; opposition leaders are kept under house arrest; and religious and ethnic minorities are systematically persecuted. It is not a job half done.

Let me give an assessment of the current situation and explain what the UK is doing and will continue to do. For many years, Baha’is in Iran have experienced harassment, discrimination and violence in a systematic attempt by the Iranian state to repress their community. Iran justifies such actions on the basis of “national security”, “maintaining public order” and other such empty claims. As the hon. Lady mentioned, the Baha’i community points us to what appears to be a secret Iranian Government memorandum from 1991 that calls for the machinery of government to block the progress and development of the community. Whatever the origins of the memo, an observation of what has happened on the ground since then demonstrates that the objective of the Iranian Government and their attitude towards the Baha’i faith amounts to systematic persecution.

Events on the ground confirm a pattern of Baha’is being systematically deprived of their rights as Iranian citizens. They have been excluded from private and public sector jobs, denying them the ability to earn a living. They have been prevented from holding positions of influence in Iranian society. Their properties and businesses are seized and their homes, businesses and cemeteries attacked. Baha’i children are harassed in schools and their right to higher education is denied. Students are banned from universities if it becomes known that they are Baha’is, and those attempting to establish an alternative, through the Baha’i Institute of Higher Education, about which I have issued statements in the past, are arrested on charges of threatening national security.

Arrest and imprisonment is, sadly, a regular feature of Baha’i life. The seven Baha’i leaders arrested in 2008 remain in prison. They are serving lengthy prison sentences of 20 years, having been subjected to unfair trials that did not comply with even Iran’s laws. Many others have been arrested and imprisoned, often on spurious charges and in defiance of the rule of law. The experience of the Baha’is in being let down by Iran’s judicial system reflects a situation that is all too common for the Iranian population as a whole. The use of violence and incitement to violence by fellow Iranians against the Baha’is sadly appears to be building. Reports received by Baha’is from followers in Semnan province in the north of Iran suggest an escalation of persecution by the Government and intensification of the existing policies of monitoring, discrimination and harassment.

There are alarming signs of a clampdown on Baha’i economic activity there, such as the raiding and closure by Intelligence Ministry officials in May of two factories that were fully or partially owned by Baha’is. On 17 October we received worrying reports of the arrest elsewhere in Iran of a further 17 followers of the Baha’i faith. As yet, it is unclear why they were arrested and whether they will be charged with any crimes.

The situation of the Baha’is in Iran is just one illustration of Iran’s many human rights failings and its lack of respect for the rule of law. This is a regime that appears unconcerned by the absence of a fair trial and that detains and mistreats people at will. Such shameful behaviour lies at the root of many of the abuses perpetrated by the regime.

Challenges to the Iranian authorities on its record have been dismissed or met with silence. The effect is a growing impunity for the perpetrators of human rights violations. That is having a further chilling effect on respect for human rights in Iran. Iran’s continual refusal to change course, or even to engage on the issue in a meaningful way, is simply deplorable.

In terms of what we have been doing and will continue to do, and our interaction with other international agencies, the British Government do not let such things pass. We will continue to monitor closely, and speak out against, persecution of religious minorities in Iran, including the Baha’is, which flies not only in the face of international law, but does not comply with Iran’s own laws or professed values.

I and my ministerial colleagues condemn all instances of violence and discrimination against individuals or groups because of their religion. We strongly support the right to freedom of religion or belief, as defined by the UN’s major human rights treaties. The promotion of human rights, including religious freedom, is central to British foreign policy. We regularly make clear to overseas Governments the importance we place on religious tolerance and eliminating all legal provisions and policies that discriminate against religious believers.

Accordingly, we remain, and will continue to remain, at the forefront of international condemnation of Iran’s behaviour against the Baha’is and other religious minorities such as Christians and Sunni Muslims.

On the wider human rights situation, the UK has played a leading role in introducing EU human rights sanctions against 77 individuals responsible for human rights abuses in Iran. We will review those again next year with EU partners.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) on securing this important debate. The Minister spells out clearly the firm actions that the UK Government have taken and they are to be commended. Does such action have any positive impacts on the treatment of Baha’is in Iran?

The honest answer is that it is genuinely difficult to tell. It is a closed society and it is difficult to get information, but the objective information we get is not good. However, what it does have an impact on is the population. The UK is not so daft as to believe that the Iranian regime speaks for all the Iranian people. We monitor carefully what the Iranian people say to each other, on social network sites and the like. The Iranian people are a savvy internationally based people. They are actually more aware and concerned about their human rights position than perhaps they appear to be in relation to, say, the nuclear file and the nuclear issue. They are disturbed that there is a sense that as a good Muslim nation they are put in the dock for offences committed by their own Government that they feel very keenly about. Accordingly, although there may not be an impact every day on the day-to-day life of Baha’is or other minorities, the sense of outrage of the Iranian people is building up. That is why it is so important to raise such issues, for us to talk about them in Parliament and for us to do things through the international agencies—as I shall come to—in order to ensure this is known to the Iranian people.

In other countries of the world where there are more democratic societies, Red Cross would be able to visit prisoners in jail and give some help. Red Crescent is the equivalent in the middle east. Has contact been made with Red Crescent, for instance, to visit those prisoners if possible to see how they are getting on and whether they need help?

That is a good question to which I do not have the answer at my fingertips. I know that in some cases it has not been possible for Red Crescent to visit detainees, and occasionally Red Cross as well in appropriate countries, which is an offence against human rights. However, Iran’s human rights abuses make a pretty long list. I will inquire about that and write to the hon. Gentleman and copy it to the hon. Member for Belfast East.

As I have said, in the wider human rights situation, we do believe those human rights sanctions have an international impact.

The hon. Lady mentioned the annual resolution at the UN General Assembly being tabled by Canada. I can assure her that not only do we support it but we are actively lobbying for more states to support that resolution. That is again an example of the international condemnation that takes away the floor from Iran when it tries to claim that it has international friends and that it is only a select number of western countries and Israel that tend to be against it. This international condemnation gives the lie to that. In relation to the hon. Lady’s other concern, we will refer specifically to Baha’is in our intervention at the UN. We will make sure that is specifically on our agenda.

We actively lobbied for the appointment by the UN Human Rights Council in March 2011 of a UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran, Dr Ahmed Shaheed, with whom I have spoken a number of times. We will continue to support him in his crucial role of investigating human rights violations and seeking genuine engagement from Iran to address international concerns. His latest report, being presented today, and on which we will comment, further confirms our picture of a terrible situation for Iran’s Baha’i community.

The hon. Lady quoted the UN Secretary-General. I can do no better than say again myself that he said

“systematic persecution of members of the Baha’i community, including severe socio-economic pressure and arrests and detention”

are the substance of Iranian response to the Baha’i faith.

I thank the Minister for giving way and acknowledge his diligence on this and other issues. I also commend the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long). Will the Minister indicate whether it would be possible, without posing any risk of reprisals on, or further suppression of, Baha’is, for diplomatic players from the EU to have any more active and direct engagement with the Baha’i community in the current context, at least as a way of mitigating the sense of isolation and helplessness that they must feel as a community suffering compound persecution?

I think we would take advice locally as to what would be the best form of engagement with the Baha’i community. We would not want to do anything that would make life more difficult. It is a closed society so getting in to see representatives locally can be difficult. Those who are able to come outside Iran and make contact with others in order to tell the truth about what is happening and engage are warmly welcomed. We can certainly ensure we do as much of that as possible.

While Iran has on occasion suggested dialogue with the international community on its human rights record, it repeatedly fails to follow that up, so we do not judge its efforts to be genuine. For example, Iran has yet to respond to the recommendations either of the UN Human Rights Committee, following its examination under the international covenant on civil and political rights, or of the UN special rapporteur in his report to the Human Rights Council of March 2012. Nor has it shown or reported any progress in implementing its universal periodic review before the UN Human Rights Council. I am afraid we have to judge them by what they do.

Our message to Iran is that we will not tire of asking difficult questions and highlighting human rights violations where we find them, until Iran takes real steps needed to address our concerns. The persecution of Baha’i and other religious minorities in Iran must stop, and the Iranian regime’s wider repression of minority or alternative views must end, too. Iran has a shameful record of detentions of human rights defenders, journalists and bloggers, and seems callously ready to use tools such as the death penalty with abandon in order to intimidate.

The quiet determination of the Baha’i to co-exist peacefully with fellow Iranians as part of a diverse and tolerant Iranian society should be embraced by Iran’s Government. We will continue to call on Iran to improve its appalling behaviour and we will not waiver in our support for the plight of the Baha’i.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.