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Opinion: "You can't see the sorrow after lights out..." - Iran's persecution of Bahá’ís

Brendan McNamara says we cannot turn a blind eye while minorities are persecuted for their faith.

Brendan McNamara

THE ONGOING WAR on our continent is devastating indeed. Millions are displaced – many have lost their lives. Multitudes are affected and we can only guess at the true level of suffering being experienced.

It is difficult against this backdrop to advocate for awareness of other instances and other places where ordinary people are deprived of their human rights. Missiles may not be raining down on them, they may still enjoy the sanctuary of home, but their lives are no less difficult and disrupted, sometimes impossibly so.

When our ‘bandwidth’ of empathy is stretched to breaking point, and governments and organisations who step in to act where rights are violated are likewise inundated, perpetrators also seize their opportunity and take advantage of the focus being elsewhere to ratchet up pressure on those they seek to persecute.

The problem with Iran

This is the case in Iran where the pressure on minorities and individuals has intensified over the last two months. According to Amnesty International, thousands of people are now imprisoned, many arbitrarily or on the flimsiest of charges.

In its statement at the Human Rights Council dialogue with the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, last March, Ireland’s representative was already expressing concern at the “persistent human rights violations in Iran, including of the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.”

“Harassment and intimidation of civil society, including those who cooperate with international human rights mechanisms, must end”, the statement continued, and called on Iran “to immediately and unconditionally release all those arbitrarily detained, including political prisoners and prisoners of conscience.”

In concluding the representative noted worrying “reports of continued discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities, including members of the Baha’i faith.”

Bahá’ís in Iran have experienced continuous persecution for their beliefs over the last 44 years, but the present acceleration is beyond troubling. Nor are Bahá’ís the only religious minority in the crosshairs of the Iranian authorities – Christians, Sunnis and Sufis are also suffering, simply for what they choose to believe.

But over the last few weeks dozens of Bahá’ís have been arrested, tried or jailed and there seems no end in sight. More than 20 Bahá’ís in Shiraz, Tehran, Yazd and Bojnourd, have been arrested, jailed or subjected to home searches and business closures since the beginning of July.

Elsewhere, 44 Bahá’ís were arrested, arraigned or imprisoned, suggesting an escalation in the Iranian government’s systematic campaign against the country’s largest non-Muslim religious minority. Some of those arrested have already been sentenced; 26 people in Shiraz alone to a combined total of 85 years in prison.

In some instances, both parents in a family have been taken from young children. Allied to other egregious human rights violations – including the desecration of cemeteries, confiscation of property and economic discrimination – life is increasingly hard for adherents of this large home-grown religious community.

Persecution

Amongst those recently arrested is Mahvash Sabet. An educator and poet, she was formerly part of a Bahá’í leadership group in Iran imprisoned for a decade from 2007 to 2017. A symbol of resilience domestically, and an internationally-known prisoner of conscience, she shared the 2017 Pen Pinter Prize with Belfast poet, Michael Longley.

Her poems have been published in English under the title Prison Poems. Paying tribute to Sabet on the occasion, Longley described her as “a songbird trapped in a cage”. In a statement, Daniel Gorman, Director of English PEN expressed how concerned they are “by reports that Mahvash Sabet, the winner of the 2017 PEN Pinter Prize for an International Writer of Courage, has once again been detained in Iran. We will continue to monitor the situation closely.”

Iran continues to ignore numerous UN Resolutions detailing human rights violations calling for the authorities to desist from using force to propagate a type of “thought compliance”. As signatories to relevant Human Rights instruments and active participants at the UN, they profess to support human rights norms.

Unfortunately, there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary and now the pressure on various minorities and groups is only intensifying. Instead of facing up to its responsibilities, Iran continues to spread propaganda and hate speech to justify wide-ranging violations of the rights of significant swathes of its population.

In one of her prison poems, Lights Out, Mahvash Sabet describes the sounds made by fellow prisoners at night. “You can’t see the sorrow after lights out/I long for the dark, the total black-out.” It is heart-breaking that she along with many others is again thrust into the abyss of incarceration simply for what she believes.

Whatever the pressing claims on our empathy, whatever political realities must be addressed and demand attention, people, organisations and governments must continue to “call out” Iran’s totally unacceptable, intensifying violation of human rights.

Brendan McNamara lectures in the Study of Religions Department at UCC and is a member of the national administrative body for the Bahá’í Faith in Ireland.

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Brendan McNamara

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