Opinion

The Iranian government is targeting Baha’is in Yemen. We’ve seen this before.

Members of the Baha'i Faith protest outside a state security court during a hearing in the case of a fellow Baha'i man, Hamid bin Haydara, suspected of contacts with Israel and charged with seeking to establish a base for the community in Yemen, in Sanaa, Yemen, on April 3, 2016. Arabic writing on the poster at right, referring to the defendant, reads, "Baha'is are demanding justice and law in the case of Hamid." (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

(RNS) — My wife and I don’t have much to go on. Just fragments of memories that we cling to like holy relics. Kamran Samimi, my wife’s grandfather, was tall and charming. He wore colorful clothing that matched his larger-than-life personality. My wife, Shirin, dreams of him often. My mother-in-law, Samira, remembers him dancing one day in the courtyard to Ella Fitzgerald. He loved to dance.

In the last days of December 1981, a firing squad executed Kamran and seven others in Tehran. He was three days shy of his 56th birthday.

Two years earlier, the Iranian Revolution had ignited a vicious fanaticism that could allow no truth other than its particular brand of Shiite Islam. Kamran and his friends were selected to be killed because they were members of the national administrative council of the Baha’i Faith, but they were just a few of the more than 200 Baha’is killed in this wave of intolerance.

Lately I find Kamran’s case haunting me because it is being echoed today in Yemen, where currently 22 Baha’is are facing charges of apostasy and espionage. The Iranian-backed Houthi authorities have indicted the Baha’i leadership in Yemen, along with a number of others, attempting to round them up in a manner that is strikingly reminiscent of the preamble to Kamran’s execution.

It’s been reported numerous times that Iran is behind the persecution of Baha’is in Yemen. Apparently unsatisfied with the blood of Kamran and the hundreds of other Baha’is, they are attempting to export their lethal 1980s Baha’i policy to Yemen.

There is a clandestine and sinister element in this that seems to involve remaking Yemen in Iran’s own image. Why else, in the midst of starvation, cholera and rampant violence, are the Houthis directing such intense energy toward the persecution of a small, peaceful religious minority?

The Baha’i Faith, with a membership of 5 million people across the globe, originated in Iran in 1844. It proclaimed the oneness of humankind, the equality between women and men, and the essential harmony of science and religion, among other teachings. It also claimed that divine revelation continued after Muhammad.

Yemen, in red, located south of Saudi Arabia in the Middle East. Image courtesy of Google Maps

While all the above irks the Iranian authorities, this last theological point was and is intolerable. In the eyes of the Iranian government, Baha’is are apostates, and the punishment for apostasy is death.

The revolutionary government can’t come out and admit this, of course. In Kamran’s case, it deemed it necessary to claim that he and his friends were spies for Israel, part of an international conspiracy to undermine the Islamic Republic of Iran. These claims were premised on the fact that the Baha’i World Center is in Israel — itself the result of Iran and the Ottoman Empire exiling the Baha’i founder, known as Baha’u’llah.

The charges against Kamran were, needless to say, baseless. Calm in this knowledge, he was the embodiment of dignity in the hours before his death, as you can see in the grainy footage of the trial.

Justice is again being corrupted in Yemen today. The judge presiding over the 22 Baha’is’ case already sentenced a Yemeni Baha’i, Hamid bin Haydara, to death earlier this year on identical charges.

While his case is held up in appeals, the fate of this next cadre of 22 remains uncertain. Without international intervention, the prospects are grim.

Amid the generalized horror of Yemen’s civil war, this religious persecution is unique. It shows that Iran’s interests in Yemen are not purely to mire the resources of Saudi Arabia, Tehran’s regional enemy, in an unwinnable war. It is also Iran’s aim to target Baha’is.

One thing the world learned from the Baha’is’ experience in Iran in the 1980s was that sustained international outcry can sometimes stop atrocities. While Kamran could not be saved by this, shortly after his execution, the world’s outrage stymied the wave of death, slowing it to a sludge of economic and educational deprivations. While locking Baha’is into a grossly unjust status as second-class citizens, it at least stopped the killings for the time being.

But if we allow the 22 Baha’is in Yemen to meet the same fate as Kamran and his companions, what will the world have actually learned?

A couple of weeks ago I was spending some time with my wife’s family, and three of Kamran’s daughters — Samira, Soosan and Haleh —  were there. They spent the evening sharing photos, memories, laughter and tears, as we paid tribute to him and his sacrifice, which continues to cast both light and shadow across the family’s history.

As the evening reached its end, I moved to the doorway, but Haleh had one last memory to share.

“You know, I’ve heard that when he and his friends were finally taken to be executed, they asked the guards to remove their blindfolds and their handcuffs.”

I asked why.

“They wanted to die dancing.”

(James Samimi Farr is the media officer for the U.S. Baha’i Office of Public Affairs. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

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James Samimi Farr

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