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Baha’i Community in Iran

Volume 720: debated on Tuesday 11 October 2022

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the treatment of the Baha’i community in Iran.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Betts. I welcome the Minister to her position, and I am grateful that there are a number of other colleagues in the Chamber. I chair the all-party parliamentary group on the Baha’i faith; in that regard, before I come to the meat of what I want to say, let me place on the record the appreciation that I feel, and I know my predecessors felt, for the work of the UK Baha’i Office of Public Affairs. Dan Wheatley, in particular, and his various colleagues over the years have been of enormous service to us all, and to the Baha’i community in my constituency. Orkney and Shetland are home to two small but very effective, warm and welcoming Baha’i communities, which have demonstrated great fellowship to me and my family over the years, for which I have always been enormously grateful.

Persecution of the Baha’i community in Iran is hardly new; it has been a feature of life for Baha’is in Iran since the 1979 revolution. However, over the summer, we saw a sharp increase in the number of innocent Baha’is facing persecution by the Iranian state. It is unfortunate—it grieves me—that we have to bring this matter to the House today, but I hope that those who are suffering that persecution will take some comfort from hearing reference made to it in this House. The people whose names I will mention should understand that their suffering and persecution are seen, and that they will not be ignored by those of us who care about human rights for everyone.

Iran does not have a good record on human rights; I think that is an uncontroversial statement across the Chamber. However, rather than getting to grips with it, the country has in recent years stepped up the oppression of its own people. From the arbitrary detention of protesters to the persecution of the LGBTQ+ community and the second highest number of executions in the world, there is a great deal about which we should worry in the state of human rights and freedom in Iran. I do not want to touch on it at any great length, but it would be remiss of me if I were not to mention what we have seen in recent weeks in Iran. In particular, we should mourn the loss of the 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini, who tragically died in police custody after being detained for alleged violations of Iran’s strict dress code.

It is in this context—that of a brutal regime—that we come to Iran’s repression of the Baha’i community inside its own borders. Iran’s religious minorities have suffered for too long at the hands of the state. The Baha’i community of Iran has an estimated 350,000 believers, who have long faced systematic oppression orchestrated by the Government. That alone merits discussion, but the alarming increase in persecutions of the Baha’i community in recent months further shows the need to shine a spotlight on the issue. This year, over the summer in particular, Baha’is in Iran have faced what The New York Times characterised as a “sweeping crackdown” on their community. That new wave of suppression by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence has included unwarranted arrests of believers and faith leaders, a deeply concerning rise in the confiscation and destruction of property, and accusations that followers of the Baha’i faith have acted as spies for Israel.

I commend the right hon. Gentleman for securing the debate and on the hard work he does for the Baha’i community. I share his concern for that community in Iran. I believe that Iran’s treatment of the Baha’i community serves as a litmus test for Iran’s commitment to freedom of religion or belief. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that more should be done to stop the arbitrary arrest of Baha’is on spurious allegations? That is one of many ways in which the religious freedom of Baha’is is violated, along with their other fundamental human rights.

Indeed I do, and I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the work he does to promote freedom of religion or belief around the world. He makes a very good point, and I hope to give some context in reference to the situation in which the Baha’is in Iran find themselves.

The right hon. Gentleman may be aware that people of the Baha’i faith are banned from accessing higher education in Iran, which is a sad means of repression by the state. Does he agree that denying access to education is Iran’s way of keeping Baha’i youth isolated and powerless? Access to education is a vital right that should be protected.

I absolutely do. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making that point because it means that I will not need to say quite so much about that subject and that I can continue to take interventions. I am happy to take interventions, because it is important that, when the record is printed, it is seen that this is not a tiny concern but one that extends across the House.

The right hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech and it is really important that our concern is placed on the record. I am proud to be an officer of the APPG on the Baha’i faith. I hope that he agrees that this House must continue to hold Iran accountable for its violations of the rights of its own citizens in the Baha’i community, particularly during this global crisis. Will he join me in urging the Minister to speak up and speak out, because we need action now?

Absolutely. In many ways Baha’is are low-hanging fruit—this issue is not just confined to Iran but it is particularly acute there—because they are a tiny religious minority. As somebody who has campaigned on human rights for many years, including before I came to this House as a Member of Parliament, I know that that increases rather than diminishes our obligation to draw attention to their plight.

We can do a lot as individual Members of Parliament, but I hope that the Government, who speak for the country as a whole, will take that message to heart in everything we say as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and still, I hope, a country to which the world looks as a force for good and as a protector and, in many cases, a creator of human rights legislation. People should understand that this issue matters to Britain—not just to individuals but to our Government as a whole.

While I am on the subject, I should place on the record my appreciation for the remarks made by Lord Ahmad earlier in the year. They were heard by the Baha’i community in this country and beyond, and they were certainly very much appreciated.

The right hon. Gentleman is being incredibly generous with his time. I spoke to members of York’s Baha’i community just last week, and they wanted to stress the importance of our Government speaking out because the Baha’i community in Iran cannot. Their aims are always altruistic and peaceable in serving their community. Will the right hon. Gentleman comment on the fact that many in the Baha’i community are unable to work in Iran because of the suppression and suspicion that is placed on them when all they want to do is serve like the rest of the population?

A breach of human rights is a breach of human rights. It is invidious to try to construct a hierarchy of human rights, because the defining characteristic of human rights is that they are universal. But one of my particular concerns is the pervasive way in which the Iranian state persecutes the Baha’i community. It is not just the persecution of their religious belief, but their exclusion from education, the closing of their businesses—there is persecution in a whole range of ways. That is not an accident. It is a quite deliberate strategy that is designed to persecute people simply because of their religious belief. If we allow it to happen to the Baha’is, it will happen to other religious minorities as well. If it can happen in Iran, it can happen in just about any other country. When it comes to human rights and freedom of religion, we are not safe unless everyone is safe.

The Baha’i International Community reported 125 separate incidents of persecution in the first 10 days of August 2022 alone—a worrying development that signals a step up in the regime’s attempts to crack down on an already heavily persecuted religious minority. By 1 September, the number of incidents in the crackdown had almost doubled to 245. I fear that it is doubtless even higher today.

I want to highlight a number of developments that show the breadth and depth of these changes. First, the regime has upped its campaign against religious minority leaders in Iran by rearresting three former members of the Yaran, the informal leadership committee of the Baha’i community. Afif Naemi, Mahvash Sabet and Fariba Kamalabadi have already served 10 years of their life in prison for their service to the Baha’i community, and the Yaran committee has been wound up, so all three have, in fact, retired from roles of religious leadership.

Furthermore, the mass arrest of 26 Baha’is in the city of Shiraz alone is exceptionally worrying. The number of Baha’is raided, arrested or recalled to prison has increased significantly since June.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for giving way. He is making a really powerful speech. I have been approached by a number of people in my constituency who are incredibly concerned about this crackdown and the human rights abuses right across Iran. It is particularly worrying for those who belong to my Baha’i community in Halifax. I thank them not only for bringing this to my attention, but for the community work they do in Halifax. Reading the information about what is happening in Iran, I found it particularly heartbreaking to learn of the arrest and detention of parents of young children, leaving those children without parental care. That demonstrates the impact this crackdown is having on families and children in particular.

This is where it becomes personal for us all. As a parent, I can only imagine what it would be like to find myself under that sort of pressure. It touches on my earlier point about the pervasive, all-encompassing nature of the persecution of the Baha’is. They find themselves excluded from just about every aspect of normal, everyday life that we would take for granted. It is this element of systematic oppression that is particularly concerning.

On 2 August 2022, Iran sealed off the village of Roushankouh in the Mazandaran province, blocking off road access by sending in 200 armed agents of the Iranian state. Six homes were demolished by heavy equipment and 20 hectares of Baha’i-owned property were confiscated, according to the Baha’i International Community. Amnesty International reports that villagers had their mobile phones taken to stop them filming, while peaceful protesters were beaten and targeted with pepper spray. That incident follows a similar demolition of at least 50 homes in the village of Ivel, also in the Mazandaran province, in June 2021.

As the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) mentioned earlier, access to education is severely limited by the state. Most Baha’is are excluded from the national entrance examination to higher education institutions because their applications are characterised as “file incomplete”—illustrating the way in which bureaucracy can be used as a tool of religious oppression—as they do not come from one of the four constitutionally recognised religions. This year, as of August 2022, more than 90 Baha’i students were prevented from enrolling in Iranian universities, according to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Iranian Ministry of Intelligence has further accused believers of espionage and infiltrating education institutions.

In 2020, Baha’i faith believers became unable to register for identity cards for a similar reason to that given to those applying for higher education. The option of “other religion” was removed from the application form—an example of Iran cracking down on even a hint of an already oppressed minority—and that has caused real problems, as the Baha’is are not allowed to lie about their faith.

Baha’i-owned shops have been another target of the Iranian regime in recent years. Iranian authorities have systematically closed Baha’i-owned shops without legitimate cause. We also have the horrific situation of more than 1,000 Baha’is facing legal hearings on false charges or being summoned to be put into overcrowded prisons— something that is unjust and unsustainable. But the cruelty does not stop there. In April 2021, Amnesty International reported that authorities prevented Baha’is from burying their loved ones in empty plots at a cemetery near Tehran, insisting that they bury them between existing graves or at the nearby Khavaran mass grave, a site related to the 1988 prison massacres. This ban was eventually lifted after mass public outcry, but the fact that it was ever even imposed shows the Iranian regime’s contempt for the Baha’is within its own borders.

The explicit policy to take away the social and economic rights of the Baha’is is driven by a memorandum from the Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council back in 1991, which was prepared for the Supreme Leader to deal with what was termed “the Baha’i question”. Just consider the use of that term, “the Baha’i question”. This memorandum’s provisions say that the Iranian Government should conduct their dealings with the Baha’i community in such a way that

“their progress and development are blocked”.

As this shows, the recent sweeping crackdown is just the latest in a long line of actions against believers of the Baha’i faith.

The oppression of the Baha’is in Iran has, however, been noticed and will continue to be noticed, and it will be rightfully condemned by human rights campaigners, media and Government. I welcome the comments of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, who was quick to condemn this summer’s developments, and I welcome the Government’s commitment to working with international partners to hold Iran accountable. I hope that that will not be an isolated comment and that the Government of this country will continue to call this out when they find it. What we are witnessing in Iran today is not a new development. The Baha’i community have faced an unjust assault on their freedoms for decades, but it is deeply troubling to watch this new intensification unfold.

For many years, Baha’i officers around the world have suggested that the treatment of their community in Iran offered an instructive litmus test on the sincerity of Iranian authorities towards reform and respect for human rights. In addition to the plight of the Baha’is, we witness a wider human rights crisis engulfing Iran and taking the lives of young Iranians, most notably young women. Iran has failed that litmus test. The Baha’i community and all other persecuted religious minorities across the globe deserve better. They deserve our support. They deserve our actions and the actions of our Government in calling out the actions of the Iranian Government where they are seen. We will not ignore what is happening. I hope that, if this is heard in Tehran, that is the one message that they will take from today’s proceedings.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, I believe for the first time. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for securing this important debate and making sure that this important message continues to be heard. I also appreciate his dedication as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the Baha’i faith.

Let us be clear: Iran’s human rights record is deplorable. Human rights violations are widespread and routine under President Raisi’s Government. Freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and women’s equal participation in society have been further eroded in 2022, and the events of recent weeks, following the shocking death of Mahsa Amini after her arrest by Iran’s so-called morality police, bring home the stark reality: women in Iran fearing for their lives because of what they choose to wear. Those who bravely take to the streets to protest against this injustice do so at great risk to their lives. I am in awe of them, and I know from the previous debate and urgent question that many in this House are as well.

Mass arrests and the mistreatment of detainees are common, trials continue to be marred by irregularities, and individuals receive little or no due process. The use of the death penalty is rampant and on the rise. It is against that bleak backdrop that the Baha’i community face a sustained campaign of persecution by the Iranian authorities. The Baha’i community has long faced systematic discrimination and targeted harassment in Iran. As the right hon. Member said, acts of repression include the forced closure of Baha’i-owned shops and businesses, pressure to convert to Islam and the denial of education, which the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) mentioned. Over recent years, there has been a marked increase in the state identifying, monitoring and arbitrarily detaining Baha’i people. Alarmingly, Iran shows no signs of stopping.

On 1 August, the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence confirmed the arrest of a number of Baha’i community members. That followed credible reports in July, particularly in the Mazandaran province, of widespread raids of Baha’i homes, forced demolitions and property seizures. Since June, the community has reported a marked uptick in arrests, including, as the right hon. Member also mentioned, three former spiritual leaders, with some detainees handed lengthy sentences. These reports point to one conclusion: the Iranian authorities have made a conscious decision to intensify the repression of the Baha’i.

While Iran’s constitution offers protection for some faiths, there is widespread discrimination against minority religious or belief groups. This experience is noticeably worse for unrecognised faiths, such as the Baha’i. This Government share the view of the UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran, namely that discrimination against the Baha’i community is legally sanctioned by a lack of constitutional recognition in Iranian law and the absence of other legal protections. Recent reports that Iran is carrying out a campaign to persecute Baha’i followers in other countries—such as in Yemen, through its links with the Houthis—highlight the severity of Iran’s suppression of religious minorities.

As hon. and right hon. Members are aware, the UK Government are committed to defending freedom of religion or belief for all and promoting respect between different religious and non-religious communities. When we have concerns, we engage directly with Governments at ministerial and official level, and we raise them both publicly and privately. We have repeatedly expressed concern at the ongoing repression of members of the Baha’i faith and have taken the following steps. On 5 August, as outlined earlier, my noble Friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon issued a statement condemning the detention of members of the Baha’i community in Iran and reports of forced closures of their businesses and land seizures. He made it clear that the persecution of religious or belief minorities cannot be tolerated and is a serious violation of international human rights law.

The UK continues to co-sponsor the annual UN resolution on the human rights situation in Iran and works with international partners to ensure that it expresses serious concerns about Iran’s mistreatment of members of minority religious or belief groups, including the Baha’is. We will continue to hold Iran to account for its human rights record and have done so in relation to the crackdown on girls, women and other peaceful protesters. On 21 September, Lord Ahmad in his capacity as Minister for the Middle East called for a rigorous and transparent investigation into Mahsa Amini’s death and urged Iran to respect the right to peaceful assembly. On 3 October, the Foreign Secretary summoned Iran’s most senior diplomat in the UK to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. He made it clear that instead of blaming external actors for the unrest, the Iranian authorities should take responsibility for their actions and listen to the concerns of their people. Yesterday the UK Government imposed new sanctions on the morality police and two of its leaders, as well as five individuals historically responsible for the repression of protests. As the Foreign Secretary has said, the protests send a clear message that Iranian people are not satisfied with the path that their Government have been taking, and Iran’s leaders must now listen.

The UK continues to demonstrate its global leadership on freedom of religion or belief in support of human rights in Iran and around the world. In July, the UK hosted the international ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief, at which 47 Governments, international organisations and other entities made pledges to take positive actions in support of that human right. We will continue to build and strengthen coalitions with Governments and civil society in order to promote and protect freedom of religion or belief for all. This Government are appalled by the treatment of the Baha’i community in Iran and by the crackdown on peaceful demonstrators. I assure the House that this Government remain committed to defending freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief for all, and to promoting respect between different religious and non-religious communities. We will continue to hold the Iranian Government accountable for their human rights obligations, and to take action and encourage the international community to join us when they do not.

I thank Members for this important debate, and I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland for securing it.

Question put and agreed to.