“The confiscation of Baha'i properties has been one of the main features of the persecution of the Baha'is in Iran,” said Simin Fahandej, Representative of the Baha’i International Community (BIC) to the United Nations in Geneva, during IranWire’s April 20 online international event on religious minorities, adding that such confiscations have "not stopped” in the past couple of decades and have in fact increased.
IranWire has held a series of online advocacy events in recent months, moderated by Maziar Bahari, the site’s founding editor-in-chief, to explore issues affecting Iran’s religious minority communities. Previous events have addressed the Iranian government’s persecution of Christian converts and the state of antisemitism and Holocaust-denial in the Islamic Republic.
Baha’i-owned properties have been seized by the Iranian government on an ongoing basis since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Irrigated farmlands near the village of Kata, in Iran’s southwest, were seized at the end of last year and while a video of uniformed men cordoning-off a Baha’i-owned property in Roshankuh surfaced in November.
Fahandej added that the had observed growing “use or misuse” or Article 49 of the constitution of the Islamic Republic – and investigations by IranWire last year indeed found that these confiscations are illegal even under Iran’s own laws.
Article 49 allows the Iranian government to confiscate “any properties that it deems inappropriate under Islamic law. … [and] anything can be interpreted to be not under Islamic law,” Fahandej added.
Lands, businesses and homes seized from the Baha’is and from many others in Iran are taken into the control of the Execution of Imam Khomeini’s Order, or Setad, a parastatal body under the direct control of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Imam Khomeini.
Monir Khanjani, an Iranian-American Baha’i residing in the US state of Maryland, who has many relatives still in Iran, also joined the IranWire event.
“The latest massive attack [on our properties] was in 2013,” Khanjani said, “when [the authorities] attacked our 150-year family property, which has a farm, orchards and cattle, and which provides not only support and livelihoods for Baha'i families but had also employed 80 other non-Baha’i families.”
Khanjani added that structures on this property were demolished during the 2013 attack. And the property was declared a “military zone” by the authorities – although the Khanjani received no financial compensation for the appropriated lands.
“Over the next several years,” Khanjani added, “the family tried to go through the legal [system] and has had two cases, two active cases, which have not been responded to, which have been ignored … but I know that international attention on these conversations does help [the situation].”
Fahandej explained that the Baha’i community experience “some confiscation” of Baha'i properties before the 1979 Revolution, for example, with the demolition of the the Tehran Baha’i Center in 1955 by a group of military offices led by the prominent cleric Sheikh Mohammad Taqi Falsafi.
But “what changed after the Iranian revolution is that the persecution became systematic and it became government policy,” Fahandej said, citing a 1991 memorandum signed by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which called for the “progress and development” of the Baha’i community to be “blocked” by denying Baha’is access to higher education and disrupting their livelihoods.
Fahandej explained that, when the confiscation of Baha’i properties by the Iranian government became systematic, it covered four categories of assets.
“One has been Baha'i holy places,” she said, “another has been Baha'i cemeteries, the third one has been Baha'i institutionally-owned properties, and the fourth has been individual properties belonging to Baha’is.”
A major example of the destruction of a Baha’i holy place occurred in Shiraz, on September 1, 1979, a few months into the Revolution. The house of Siyyid Ali Muhammad, also known as the Bab, who was the first of two prophet-founders of the Baha’i faith, was destroyed by the new Islamic Republic authorities as an early step in efforts to attack the Baha’i community.
“We've seen in the destruction of many of the Baha'i holy places that some of the government officials were actually present,” Fahandej said, "showing the government sponsorship of the destruction of Baha'i holy places.”
Fahandej also said that targeting holy sites and Baha’i institutional properties – such as the Tehran Baha’i Center in 1955, as well as a Baghdad house used by Baha’u’llah, the prophet-founder of the Baha’i Faith, which was destroyed in 2013 apparently on the instigation of Iranian authorities – was part of a strategy to “completely destroy the Baha'i community from the history of Iran.”
A video of the destruction of this site, by a Baha’i named Kourosh who was later executed because of his religious beliefs, was shared during the IranWire event. More than 200 Baha’is were executed in the months after the Revolution. Fahandej added that many of the Baha’is arrested after 1979 were given a choice – “Ya Islam, ya edam,” translated as “Islam or execution,” which exposed the “entire reasoning” behind the executions and other acts of persecution as being motivated by religious prejudice and the Shia Islamic dogma that Baha’is were “unclean” apostates.
Many vigilantes and other ordinary citizens were also implicated in “government-sponsored” attacks against the Baha’is in the years after the Revolution, Fahandej said. A document by the Baha’i International Community, Violence with Impunity, documents this history. “We even saw some years ago a Baha'i was was shot dead by an individual and he was never really given any sentence, despite the fact that it was proven that it was an intentional murder,” Fahandej said, adding that the same impunity extended to repeated examples of confiscation and theft.
But at the same time, Fahandej added, “over the past 40 years [since the Revolution] the attitude towards the Baha'is by individuals Iranians has shifted drastically … many more Iranians are supportive of the Baha'is and have apologized to Baha’is.”
Monir Khanjani’s family had experienced much the same, she said, explaining that neighbors in Iran “have been supportive and helpful during vandalism or during arson incidents.” The support of these neighbors was in contrast to the fire department, Khanjani added, that ignored emergency calls during the arson attacks.
The experience of Baha’i families in the village of Ivel, in Iran’s northern province of Mazandaran provided an extreme example of the displacements and ongoing confiscations endured by Baha’is across the country.
IranWire reported earlier this year on efforts by Baha’is in Ivel to petition Iranian authorities to return seized lands to the Baha’i community. Ivel has been home to Baha’is for over 150 years and before the Revolution made up half the population. The community was active in agriculture and development projects but, on several occasions, was subjected to a series of persecutions involving expulsion and displacement even as other Iranians appropriated the Baha’i-owned properties. Provincial courts ruled on several occasions against attempts by the Baha’is to reclaim their properties. Fahandej called these confiscations – and many others like them – a form of "economic apartheid" against the Baha'is.
But in the past year, Fahandej added, the property confiscations had attracted new global attention and support for the Baha’is under a campaign called #ItsTheirLand.
“There were groups that we hadn't even necessarily even reached out to,” Fahandej said, “for example, there were farmers’ groups in Australia, and lawyers and judges in Canada, who wrote letters to the Iranian government, asking for the government to return the land of these Iveli Baha'is, saying it's their lands, you have to return it to them. And so it brought the Baha'i community closer to not only the Iranian community, but also globally, and showed the international community that the Baha'is in Iran are innocent.”