A special court in Iran’s Mazandaran province, and subsequently an appeals court, have ruled that the recent confiscations of 27 homes owned by Baha’is in the village of Ivel by the Imam Khomeini's Directive, a foundation under the control of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, were legal. The confiscations are the latest incident in years of persecution faced by the longstanding Baha’i community in Ivel.
The court rulings have been condemned by political figures as well as some Muslim leaders around the world. Brian Mulroney, the former Canadian prime minister, added his name to an open letter signed by more than 50 members of Canada’s legal community. And Islamic community leaders in the United States, Canada and India all issued statements criticizing the Iranian government’s confiscation of the lands owned by the Baha’is.
Ivel – whose name means “abandoned water” in the local dialect, because of the many springs and waterfalls in the region – is situated south-east of the city of Sari. Baha’is have lived there for generations. Ten years ago their homes and farm lands were confiscated by the authorities. The Baha’is appealed against the confiscations through every official channel before the court orders, in August and October of last year, confirmed the confiscations and closed the case.
The ordeal of these villages offers a snapshot of the repression of the Baha’is across Iran over several decades.
Confiscation and Demolition
Confiscations of Baha’i-owned homes began in Ivel, where Baha’is have lived for decades, after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. A number of Baha’is were forced to leave due to repeated acts of harassment – though they have since returned once a year to tend to their farms and livestock. In June 2010 these Baha’is learned that their ancestral homes would be demolished in an effort to permanently sever them from their village.
The Baha’is tried to returned to Ivel to intervene, on June 22 of that year, but the road into the village was blocked. Later that day and by the order of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Quds Force commander, Rahim Layali, the demolition of the Baha’i began.
The operation lasted several days and destroyed more than 50 homes and barns. Walnut trees and other crops were torched. One Baha’i family, named Piri, was unaware of the demolition plan and was attacked and beaten when they went to Ivel to harvest their crops.
A month later, Layali invited Gholam-Hossein Elham, a legal advisor to the then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and a member of the Guardian Council, to a religious celebration in Ivel and to show Elham the progress in demolishing the Baha’i-owned homes. Elham then instructed ten villages, including Layali, to write a letter to Ahmad Jannati, secretary of the Guardian Council, demanding the transfer of Baha'i lands to the village's Muslim residents.
Jannati later wrote in the margin of the letter: "According to negotiations [conducted by] the head of the judiciary, such properties belong to the Supreme Leader.”
The Baha’i villagers in Ivel appealed to the judiciary about the confiscations and the denial of their rights. But Branh 1 of the Kiasar General Court, presided over by Judge Fathi, rejected the complaints by the Baha’is and send the case to the Special Court of Constitution Article 49 of Mazandaran. Article 49 of Iran’s constitution allows the government to seize any properties in the country – though the seizures must comply with Islamic law.
The Article 49 court, presided over by Judge Morteza Mousavi, ruled last year that "the errant Baha'i sect is condemned to infidelity and impurity and their property has no legitimacy.” The Imam Khomeini’s Directive, which carried out the confiscations, was confirmed in its actions "in order to build a cultural center ... by selling lands to the low-income residents of the village of Ivel.”
The case went to Branch 54 of the Tehran Court of Appeals later in 2020, presided over by Judge Hassan Babaei, which issued a new interpretation of Article 49 in the constitution.
Article 49 states: "The government is obliged to confiscated property accrued from usury, usurpation, bribery, embezzlement, theft, gambling, misuse of endowments, misuse of government contracts and transactions, sale of uncultivated and unowned lands, income of places of corruption and other illegitimate cases, and to return it to its rightful owner, and if the owner is not known, to transfer such property to the treasury. This order must be enforced by the government through investigation, inspection, and religious proof.”
The new interpretation was designed to expose the Baha’is to charges of holding their property in Ivel by illegitimate means – despite the fact that they have farmed the land for generations.
Ivel’s Baha’is have appealed to various authorities, from the local police to the leader of Friday prayers in the village, members of parliament and the former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to no avail.
Expelled from Ancestral Homes
Baha’is have lived in Ivel for more than 150 years and have gone through many ups and downs during that time.
The first Baha’i in Ivel was Mullah Hossein Ali, a famous local preacher, who had become a Baha’i in 1863. He shared his new beliefs with others in the village and the community grew.
One of the claims of the Article 49 court in Tehran was that the Baha’is were first sent to Ivel during the Pahlavi monarchy – but Mullah Hossein Ali was alive during the preceding Qajar period.
Baha’is and Muslims have coexisted in Ivel for years and, though there was occasional friction, most of this history was peaceful. The Baha’is helped open the first primary school in Ivel and also converted the communal bath into a more sanitary facility.
The situation worsened after the 1979 Revolution. Baha’is were subjected to repeated harassment in the early 1980s – and because they were in a remote part of Iran their plight went largely unnoticed.
The Baha’i villagers – including children and the elderly – were hounded to convert to Islam. And they were were gradually forced to leave their homes to save their lives.
A number of villages in Mazandaran province had majority or entirely Baha’i populations before the Revolution. But the persecution of the Baha’is that followed the establishment of the Islamic Republic forced many of these villagers to leave their homes and to flee from villages such as Baziarkheil, Serta and Kandesban, as well as Ivel. One example of the persecution saw the Alipour family, who were Baha’is, beaten several times; an 11-year-old in the family suffered cigarette burns to his leg.
Moving did not help. The Alipour family, for example, left Kandesban for Roshankuh. But their new home was later attacked and torched by assailants. Goldaneh Alipour, a 64-year-old woman, was stranded to death after refusing to recant her faith.
Repression also intensified in Ivel. In the summer of 1979 a Baha’i cemetery was confiscated by the revolutionary Foundation for the Oppressed. Defamatory slogans against the Baha’is were broadcast the the loudspeakers of mosques every day and Baha’i children were harassed in schools.
On June 28, 1983, assailants attacked the homes of several Baha’is in Ivel and forced them out of the village. Many Baha’i-owned lands were captured but were not destroyed – their owners were forced out of Ivel but were able to return to tend to their farms.
Rural Baha’is across Iran have suffered recurring harassment and confiscation of their properties since the Revolution. Several have also been killed, including a villager in Kata, in Kohgilouyeh and Boyer-Ahmad province and in Andaroun in Birjand province. Five others were executed in Isfahan and were buried in a plastic bag in a pit. One Baha’i couple was burned alive in the village of Not in Birjand.