NEW DELHI: While the rising tide of arrests of Baha’is in Iran and destruction of their cemetery in Shiraz continues to grab headlines, the community — best known in India for their magnificent lotus-shaped marble temple here that is visited by thousands every day — is facing no less threat to its physical safety in neighbouring Iraq, one of the places of origins of the religion.
Spread in small numbers in and around Baghdad, the Baha’is continue to face social exclusion even after the fall of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, whose Baath Party banned the religion in 1970.
“One Baha’i woman we interviewed said that after she was freed from the prison of Saddam Hussein’s regime, she felt that she had moved from a small prison to a societal one, harsher and more violent from the former,” Ali Mamouri, Middle East expert and commentator on religion, told IANS in an email interview from Baghdad when asked if the religious minority is better off in Iraq than in Iran.
The Lotus Temple in New Delhi. (Getty Images photo)
Shedding light on the plight of this small religious minority, Mamouri added that the fear of persecution is so strong at present that most Baha’is are “still hiding, living in fear of declaring their social identity and preferring not to practise their religion in public”.
M Merchant, programme officer at Baha’i office of public affairs, said that in Iran, their population has shrunk to a mere three lakh out of a total of nearly six million the world over.
“India, where over two million people of the community live, is home to the largest Baha’i population while in Iraq no official record of their demographic statistics is available,” Merchant told IANS.
The Baha’i faith is the youngest of the world’s independent religions. Its founder, Baha-ullah(1817-1892), is regarded by Baha’is as the most recent in the line of Messengers of God that stretches back beyond recorded time and that includes Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Krishna, Zoroaster, Christ and Muhammad. The Baha’i faith considers itself independent of Islam.
A Baha’i temple in Wilmette, Illinois, United States. (Getty Images photo)
“The religious matrix of the Baha’i faith was Islam. Much as Christianity was born out of the messianic expectations of Judaism, the religion that was to become the B aha’i faith arose from eschatological tensions within Islam. In the same way, however, the Baha’i faith is entirely independent of its parent religion,” says the website for information resource of Baha’i international community.
Iraq is historically very important to the Baha’i faith since Baha’u’llah spent 10 years there and declared his religious call. The community, however, has shrunk to a miniscule size today due to continued violence against the faith.
The Baath regime in 1970 deprived the Baha’is of their property and forbade them from listing their religion in civil records. This was followed by the execution of many of the community’s political and religious followers.
Nilo Hejabian is an Iranian Baha’i who has resettled in Portland, Oregon, United States, has been imprisoned for her religion and accused of being a spy in her native country. (March 13, 2009, Getty Images file photo)
“The continued harassment compelled Baha’is to either completely close themselves off or emigrate from Iraq. There are no official statistics of Baha’is in Iraq and their current stregth remains unknown as the adherents are too scared to reveal their identities,” Mamouri said.
Nilakshi Rajkhowa, director, Baha’i office of public affairs here, said that recent fatwas issued by Muslim religious scholars stressing the importance of accommodating diverse beliefs have not been of much use.
“Even the house of the prophet (Baha’u’llah) in Baghdad which used to be a piligrim house has been taken over and occupied by the government,” Rajkhowa told IANS.
Shrine of the Bab which is the second holy place for Baha’i worshippers and its terraced gardens are seen on Mount Carmel, Haifa, Israel. (Getty Images photo)
In the Middle East, Africa and Europe, Muslim religious figures have condemned attacks on the Baha’is, in particular in Iran, and called for peaceful coexistence. Notable among them is Iranian Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi Tehrani who denounced intolerance against the community.
“But the situation of Baha’is has not changed. Baha’is have neither got official recognition nor have they regained their confiscated property,” Mamouri pointed out.
Members of the Baha’i religion demonstrate in Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana beach on June 19, 2011 asking Iranian authorities to release seven Baha’i prisoners accused of spying for Israel and sentenced to 20 years in jail. (Getty Images file photo)
As the militants from ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) capture swathes of land in Iraq, wreaking havoc on non-Muslims and those they call apostates, like the Yazidis, their disposition towards Baha’is is not immediately known.
“Baha’is don’t exist in the area under control of IS (Islamic State). They are mostly in Erbil, Suleimaniah and Baghdad,” Mamouri said.
The Islamic State jihadists have been destroying ancient shrines and places of worship of Shias and other faiths, like the one above, in the areas they control in Iraq.