Let me take you back to the early eighties, a couple of years after the start of the Iran-Iraq War.
An old man called Mr Azeri was locked up on death row in Semnan in northeastern Iran. His crime back in those zealous post-revolutionary days was his religion. He was a Baha’i.
With his long white beard, Mr Azeri looked a little like the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. He waited, along with other Baha’is, in the local jail waiting to be executed by hanging or firing squad. Then, unexpectedly, his young grandson traded his own life for his grandfather's.
This young man and several of his friends had volunteered to join the Basiji militia and fight on the Iranian frontlines of the war against Iraq.
Less than two months later they were dead or, in the religious parlance of that brutal war, “martyred.”
The young man’s family petitioned the wardens of Semnan jail to grant Mr. Azeri a temporary release so he could travel to his family and mourn the death of his grandchild.
The head of the jail was astounded to hear that a Baha’i had volunteered to fight, and had been killed in action. However, the evidence — a young man’s corpse wrapped in a burial shroud — was undeniable, so the jailer let the old man out of prison to go to the martyrdom ceremony.
He also had to face the fact that some Bahai’s were willing to die for the same country that persecuted and jailed members of their faith.
The middle-class neighbors of Mr Azeri’s family in the city of Sabzevar — aware of the martyrdom rites — also had to wrestle with this uncomfortable truth.
Mr Azeri was one of the few lucky ones. In the end, the judicial authorities in Tehran agreed that he didn't have to return to jail after the funeral. He lived on for several years and eventually died of natural causes. I happened to see him shortly after he’d been freed, reading a book Tolstoy himself had written in his old age, Confessions.
Since the start of the Islamic revolution, 241 Baha’is have been executed in Iran. Few people know that 40 Baha’i soldiers died or remain missing-in-action after serving in the Iran-Iraq war. More importantly, none of them are recognized by the official Martyr’s Foundation because they are regarded as apostates.
In this they are unique.
The Jewish and Zoroastrian communities in Iran (each roughly 20,000 strong) also sent sons and brothers to the war against Iraq. Their dead are recognized by the Martyrs Foundation and their families are entitled to lifetime stipends and various other benefits.
Even the Charter of Citizenship Rights introduced by the reformist President Hassan Rouhani last year does nothing to rectify this injustice.
Almost 30 years after the Iran-Iraq War, when Baha’is were welcomed as cannon-fodder, their sacrifice is still not recognized or rewarded.
In that time, the Baha’is have not even won the right to observe their own religious calendar. At the time of writing, 341 Baha’i-owned shops and businesses remain sealed shut by the authorities simply because the owners wanted to close on Baha’i holidays.
For shame, Iran.