This weekend, the spring equinox marked the start of the Persian new year, a date celebrated by people in Iran, Afghanistan, Turkey, the Kurdish regions of Iraq and among the diaspora throughout the world.
It is observed by diverse societies in different ways, but usually involves social gatherings, music and food — a festival.
And for the Bahá’is it has an added religious significance as a time of spiritual renewal and new aspirations, involving meditation and reflection.
This year the as preparations were being made, the international Bahá’i community came together to condemn the treatment of Bahá’is in northern Iran, appealing that land confiscated by the state should be returned.
In October 2020, two Iranian courts used Article 49 of the constitution to justify the seizure of land near the village of Ivel, in the Mazandaran Province bordering the Caspian Sea, where half of the population is Bahá’i.
The land, mainly agricultural, had belonged to Bahá’is for more than a century, where they established schools and health institutions and relied on farming to survive.
Bahá’is UK say that during the court case, lawyers were allegedly given no opportunity to inspect court documents, to prepare a defence, or to present any arguments. They say that numerous official documents reveal religious prejudice as the motive behind the confiscations.
They add that further information from the League for the Defence of Human Rights in Iran has come to light. This group says a confidential document outlining government plans to control the movements of Baha’is and the Dervishes in the region was considered by local government officials one month before property was removed from 27 Bahá’i farming families in Ivel Village.
Muslim leaders have denounced the decision. The American Islamic Congress, the Canadian Council of Imams, the All India Tanzeem Falahul Muslemin and the All India Saifi Association have all issued statements in support of the Bahá’is, expressing grave concern about the land seizure after a court judgment.
Officials in the United States, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden have also condemned the persecution. A group of more than 50 high-ranking legal professionals in Canada, including Brian Mulroney, the former prime minister, have written an open letter to Iran’s Chief Justice, Ebrahim Raisi, saying the ruling departs from international human rights standards and the Iranian constitution itself.
In the UK, the foreign minister Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon tweeted: “The UK is deeply concerned by reports of expropriation & repossession of land … This follows a worrying escalation in long-standing persecution against religious minorities in Iran. We will always stand up for people of all faiths & beliefs.”
The Baháʼí faith, which has 300,000 followers in Iran, was founded after a schism in Shia Islam in the 19th century. Baháʼís consider Bahaullah, born in 1817, to be the latest prophet sent by God.
Baháʼís UK says this is the latest in a pattern of persecution for the Baháʼís in Ivel. The community has experienced attacks on their properties, arson, imprisonment, and expulsion, which escalated after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. In 2010, nearly 50 Baháʼí homes were destroyed by fire.
The Baháʼí faith is not recognised in the post-revolutionary constitution of Iran and its followers have been deprived of the right to practice their religious beliefs. They have limited rights, meaning they are unable to find recourse in Iranian law, cannot pursue a university education and suffer workplace discrimination. Cemeteries have also been desecrated. Several are in prison, charged with membership of a “deviant” Baha’i group with intent to disrupt national security.
In an open letter to President Hassan Rouhani in 2016, the Baháʼí International Community called the confiscation of land an “economic apartheid”.