(RNS) — Yesterday, the House of Representatives passed House Resolution 744, which condemns the Iranian government’s persecution of its Baha’i community and its “continued violation of the international covenants on human rights.”
While not the first time such a resolution has been passed, it comes at a unique time in Iran’s history.
For more than two months, the world has watched as an extraordinary protest movement, led largely by women and prompted by the death of Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s morality police, has unfolded in the streets of Iran’s cities. The world would not be blamed if it were jaded with over-exposure to Iran’s human rights violations, but country after country has turned with unusual empathy to protest the suffering of the Iranian people.
For the Baha’i community, like much of the rest of the Iranian diaspora, this suffering is never very far away. Though a world religion, with adherents in every country on the planet, our faith, founded in the 19th century in Iran, has been subject since to harsh persecution, which intensified after the 1979 revolution.
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In Minneapolis the night before the resolution passed, I attended a memorial service for an Iranian-American Baha’i, the brother of an old friend. For as long as many of us had known this man, he had needed a great deal of mental and physical care. His sister took the podium and took all of us behind the curtain of his life, which, to many of us in attendance, had only been marked by silence and obscurity.
While some of his family left Iran during the Islamic revolution, he had stayed behind and tried to make a decent life for himself. As a Baha’i, this meant braving a litany of abuses. He was denied access to university; his modest attempts to earn a living through an electronics shop were shut down; he watched as friends and loved ones were executed for no crime other than adhering to their faith; and finally, he himself was imprisoned.
After the family was finally able to bring him to America, he never talked about what happened to him while in the care of Iran’s ideological watchdogs, the Revolutionary Guards. When he was released from jail, however, it was clear his mind had been shattered. Another sister recounted seeing him after a 10-year absence.
Struggling against her tears and her ability to find the words to capture the horror, she ended up uttering a simple phrase: “He was not the same person.”
It’s likely that the last sane act this man performed was to refuse to recant his faith, which was his only crime in the eyes of his captors. In whatever followed, he surrendered his mind rather than his soul.
My point is not to simply recall a friend’s personal tragedy, as affecting as it was. As I sat with the mourners, I was struck by how familiar his story is to so many Iranians. The tests faced by this brother are the same still faced by the country’s Baha’is and other unjustly persecuted groups in Iran every day. His story is not rare but still instructive; it illustrates the often-overlooked social cost of mass persecution.
Before his mind had snapped, the woman’s brother was beloved in his neighborhood for his helpfulness, intelligence and his community service. At the time of his first arrest by the guards, he was moving his sister’s couch up some stairs. Before he would acquiesce to being taken into custody, he insisted that the officers help him complete the move. One wonders what contributions he might have made to the fortunes of his home country if it had not spurned the many gifts he had to offer.
The persecution of Baha’is, and of many other groups and peoples in Iran, comes with complex effects. Of course, the victims experience trauma but also lose the right to contribute to society. This seldom-pondered but essential human right is one Iranian Baha’is, despite the restrictions placed on them by their government, will not relinquish. By denying its citizens their full rights as human beings, it is merely denying itself the full possibilities of their contributions.
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What kind of country might Iran be if its government did not actively other and squash its minorities as a matter of state policy? The question is impossible to answer but vital to ask, and Iran’s people are, at a scale only seldom seen, asking it aloud.
The effects of resolutions like H.R.744 are hard to ascertain. We do know that some of the worst persecution against the Baha’i community has been stanched only through a campaign of international pressure. My friend’s brother knew that what he did counted in his corner of the world. In a global culture, every voice is important, as we urge Iran to accept our full humanity.
(James Samimi Farr is a media researcher with the Baha’is of the United States. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)