An Ayatollah’s Gift to Baha’is, Iran’s Largest Religious Minority

An ayatollah offers a beautiful symbolic gesture against a backdrop of violent persecution.

On April 7, through a courageous and compassionate gesture, Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani stood as a champion for the dignity and rights of Iran’s most oppressed religious minority — the Baha’is. On that day, Ayatollah Tehrani announced on his website that he had created a work of illuminated calligraphy based on a passage from the writings of Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Baha’i Faith. He then offered his exquisitely rendered work of art to the Baha’i community as a token of respect and support.

Baha’is constitute the largest non-Muslim religious minority in Iran. They have been imprisoned, tortured, and killed in recurrent waves of persecution for over 160 years. They have no human rights under the country’s constitution, and crimes can be committed against them with impunity. Many are currently in prison for no reason other than their beliefs.  Moreover, the government of Iran has formalized a policy to ensure that their “progress and development shall be blocked.”

One of my own former students is currently in prison in Iran merely because she is a Baha’i. The grandfather of another student I taught was burned alive for the same reason.

[Bahai’s] have no human rights under the country’s constitution, and crimes can be committed against them with impunity.

Against this backdrop of violent persecution, Ayatollah Tehrani’s symbolic gesture comes with significant personal risk. And yet, he is the latest in a growing number of Muslim clerics and other leaders of thought who, facing similar risks, have taken a principled and constructive stand for the rights of Baha’is, for freedom of belief, and for interfaith harmony inside Iran.

One of these, the late Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, issued a statement proclaiming the entitlement of Baha’is to the same rights accorded to all citizens of Iran. Another, activist Mohammad Nourizad, had himself photographed kissing the feet of a 4-year old boy whose Baha’i parents were unjustly imprisoned, as an act of public apology for his country’s misguided persecution of Baha’is. These are but two examples of a growing trend inside Iran.

The acts of these men remind us of others such as Beyers Naudé, an Afrikaner in apartheid South Africa who was a prominent Christian cleric. As a courageous voice for human rights and racial harmony, Naudé’s unwavering efforts helped usher in the post-apartheid era in that country. Like Tehrani, Montazeri, and Nourizad, his principled and constructive appeals helped elevate public discourse above the clamor of bigotry and fanaticism, and illumined the path of progress and reconciliation.

Echoing this history, Tehrani asserted, in a statement coinciding with his gift to the Baha’i community, that a system of “religious apartheid” has been constructed in his own country through “laws based on ignorance.” In that same statement he analyzed the “lies and deceit,” the “empty slogans and posturing,” and the “division and contention” that have been propagated by self-interested leaders “in the pursuit of their own worldly gain.” He discussed how this has pitted “brother against brother” within a “culture of conflict” that has degraded the morals of his country and led to “ruinous depression and anxiety” among the country’s youth.

In this context, Tehrani reminds his fellow Iranians of “the importance of valuing human beings, of peaceful co-existence, of cooperation and mutual support.” He appeals for the “avoidance of hatred, enmity, and blind religious prejudice.” And he calls upon all of his fellow citizens “to evince love and affection, friendship and kindliness, mercy and compassion, forgiveness and empathy, care and solidarity, helpfulness and support, and to respect the life, possessions and dignity of others.”

Tehrani’s message is urgently needed in Iran and his actions provide a model that should be emulated by growing numbers of thoughtful and courageous Iranians. But his message and his actions are universally relevant. They offer a model of enlightened discourse and enlightened action that deserves support and emulation in every nation where prejudice and intolerance prevail. Only by means such as this will an impulse towards human solidarity be universally nurtured and a more just social order, embracing the diversity of the human family, emerge.

Image via Baha’i World News Service.

Michael Karlberg
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  • Hilman

    A true Muslim, and human being just as God intended it all.

  • Peter C. Newton-Evans

    This is a case study in how one sincere, dedicated person can help turn a global tide – a shining example worthy of commendation and emulation.