During the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, from 1980 to 1988, thousands of Baha'is went to the front alongside their compatriots. Dozens of them were killed, wounded or captured. The Islamic Republic is reluctant to name them alongside other victims of the conflict – officially termed “martyrs” of the war.
A new series of IranWire articles looks at the Baha’is who died as a part of this conflict. If you know any Baha’is were were killed during the Iran-Iraq war, and have a first-hand account of their lives, please contact us.
“As shown in the sign, we are the Foundation of Martyrs for the Islamic Revolution; in other words, we are for Muslims. Your brother was a Baha'i and has nothing to do with the Islamic Foundation of Martyrs.” So said an official of the Foundation of Martyrs and Veterans Affairs to the brother of the war casualty Gholamreza Alaei.
Alaei’s brother responded that “We are Iranians like you. Whatever is good or bad about Iran, we both share. ... How come, when our brother went to the war to defend the country, you did not tell him he cannot go because he was not a Muslim? Now that he has given his life for his homeland, you say that, because he was not a Muslim, he is not considered a martyr?”
The official said that “A Baha'i would not be a martyr. We are sure that he became a Muslim at the last moment of his life and then he became a martyr. Now you, his family, because you are Baha'i, insist that he was a Baha'i!”
Childhood, Adolescence and the Revolution
Gholamreza Alaei Ilkhchi was born to a Baha'i family in the village of Ilkhchi in Osku county in East Azerbaijan in 1967. Today, Ilkhchi village has become a city of nearly 17,000 people.
Gholamreza and his family lived in Ilkhchi until he was eight years old. His first year of primary school took place at a school in the same village. The Alaei family later moved to the nearby city of Tabriz where Gholamreza continued his schooling.
Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, many of the residents of Ilkhchi were followers of the Ahle Haqq (the Yarsan religious minority) or were Baha’is, and the two communities peacefully coexisted in the village. A few years after the Revolution, groups from outside Ilkhchi entered the village and forced the Baha’i villagers to leave by burning their houses and farms and by abducting and beating them.
Gholamreza's father, Enayatullah Alaei, was a farmer, like most of the other villagers. But because of his education and familiarity with Persian literature, such as the Shahnameh and Haft Peykar, he was known among the people as a mullah. According to his relatives, Enayat was a literate and educated person and was not interested in accruing money or material wealth. When Saderat Bank opened a branch in Ilkhchi, they invited Enayat to work for them, but he refused and said he did not want to limit his options by becoming an employee. Enayatullah Alaei died in 1973.
After the death of Enayatullah, the Alaei family, who had lost their guardian and had few savings, suffered severe financial difficulties. The burden of providing for the family fell on the mother, Narges, who also had to raise her five children. The family’s move to Tabriz, a year after Enayataullah’s death, was prompted by these financial hardships.
They resettled in a property and community centre belonging to the Baha'i community on Issa Khan Alley near Shahnaz Street. The Baha'i library was located there and religious gatherings were held there. Mrs. Alaei worked as a caretaker at the property and was provided with rooms for her and her family.
The Baha’i property – and with it, the Alaei’s home – was repeatedly raided and searched by security agents after the Islamic Revolution. Books, documents and whole properties were confiscated without a warrant. And in 1979 the residence of Gholamreza and his family was also seized by the Islamic Revolution Committee. The Alaeis were evicted – this was the beginning of their displacement.
The family moved several times. Many would not rent to them because they were Baha'is. The Alaeis went to Ilkhchi once more and then returned to Tabriz again for the children's schooling. They were eventually able to rent a house on Shah Street (now renamed to Taleghani street).
Immigrating to Tehran for Work
The Alaei family always struggled with financial stability. Everyone in the family was always looking for work to make a living, but there was little available, making life ever-more difficult. Economic pressures and unemployment ruined the adolescent Gholamreza's morale.
He was forced to drop out of school in 1982. Gholamreza and his brother went to Tehran to look for work. Both brothers initially found jobs at Iran Cinema’s buffet, on Lalehzar Street; later, Gholamreza’s brother opened nuggets at more cinemas, and together they worked across multiple locations.
Gholamreza also wanted to continue his education and even applied to evening classes. But the work he secured did not allow him to study at night. Conditions caused by the Iran-Iraq war and the poor financial of the family, meanwhile, were other factors that prevented Gholamreza from continuing his education.
The brothers rented a room in Tehran together and in 1984 the whole family moved from Tabriz to the capital. They lived together in a house on Shahid Yaseri Street.
Gholamreza later worked in a tricycle shop where he showed technical aptitude and gained skills in the trade. He wanted to set up his own tricycle workshop but was hindered by a number of challenges – including being drafted into the army. He went into compulsory military service at the end of 1985 – still two years before the end of the war.
Everyone tried to stop Gholamreza from enlisting. But he used to say: “Our country has been attacked. We cannot be indifferent and say we are Iranians.”
After completing basic training at the Lavizan garrison, Gholamreza was assigned to the 21st Hamzeh Division. He asked his commander if he could serve in the support unit because of his religious beliefs, as Baha’is are meant to avoid conflict, but his commander refused and he was sent to the front line.
After four months of service at the Marivan front, Gholamreza Alaei was killed in the Panjwin area on the evening of July 2, 1986, by sustaining a head wound from shrapnel from a mortar shell. He was 20 years old at the time of his death.
The Largest Baha'i Funeral Since the Revolution
The Alaei family was informed of Gholamreza’s death on the same day. Two days later, the body was ready to be identified and returned to the family. The Foundation of Martyrs and Veteran Affairs gave food vouchers to the Alaeis to help them prepare for the memorial.
Gholamreza's brother says: “The family was preparing for the funeral and the memorial when they received a call from the local mosque. Because Gholamreza had been martyred, they wanted to build a martyr's memorial for him. We told them that we are Baha'is and that we did not want this, but they insisted, and finally we accepted with the condition that we write the announcement ourselves. The text began with a verse from the Quran and a statement from Bahaʼu’llah [the founder of the Baha’i faith] and we invited everyone to attend the funeral on July 10. The cultural unit of the Foundation of Martyrs approved the text and 200 copies of the notification were produced. Several copies were put at the entrance to the mosque and by the cemetery. The Baha'is also copied and distributed large numbers of the notice in the city. We realized at some point that several thousand copies of the announcement had been distributed in Tehran and other cities.”
Mr. Alaei continues: “On the morning of July 10, when we opened the front door of our house, there was a large crowd. The army had provided four buses and we had booked six more as well, but ten buses were not enough. The crowd was too large. We started hiring any extra buses we could find. We finally headed to Khavaran cemetery with 23 buses and at least 850 cars to bury Gholamreza. We then held a memorial service at our home a few days. A large crowd came to offer their condolences. The crowd was so large that there was a long line in front of the door.”
Killed while Defending his Homeland
Among the mourners was a brigadier0general in charge of army ceremonies, and two other officers, who congratulated Gholamreza’s family on his “martyrdom for Islam.” The family said: “We respect Islam but we are not Muslims. Our brother was killed defending his homeland, and we, as Baha'is, are proud of this. We do not consider this war a war with infidels who are against Islam. Our country has been invaded by an enemy and it is the duty of every Iranian to defend our territory.”
After this incident, the Alaei family published an ad in Kayhan newspaper, on July 29, 1986, thanking the friends and acquaintances whose presence comforted Gholamreza’s family. A verse from the Baha’i writings, about martyrdom, was included in the ad.
Acquaintances of the Alaei family who were unable to attend Gholamreza's memorial requested that the family hold a memorial on the 40th day of Gholamreza's martyrdom – a Shia Muslim custom. At the same time, they learned from an informed source that after the publication of the Kayhan ad, a seminary had complained to the Foundation of Martyrs and that Foundation was displeased about the situation.
After some deliberation, the Alaei family decided to hold the 40th day memorial. They went to the cultural unit of the Foundation of Martyrs to print the announcement. But the unit refused to publish it, saying that they had been instructed to not take any actions with regards to Gholamreza Alaei.
The Baha’i’s Case was “Archived”
The Alaei family visited the regional office of the Foundation of Martyrs. The official in charge told them that Gholamreza Alaei’s case had been archived and that no further action would be taken for him. The family asked why. The official said that Gholamreza had committed suicide. Gholamreza's brother reminded the officer that his brother was killed when he was struck by shrapnel from a mortar.
“Does anyone know when and where a mortar will come from so that they can stand where the fragments are going to strike?” the brother asked. “So he was a Mujahideen?” the official asked, referring to an Iranian group in Iraq fighting against the Islamic Republic.
“No”, said Gholamreza’s brother. “He was a Baha'i.”
The Alaeis were referred to the headquarters of the Foundation of the Martyrs next and then to the communication office. Gholamreza's brother says: “When the official in charge saw Gholamreza's name, he started cursing. He said ‘You have tarnished the reputation of the Foundation of Martyrs. You printed misguided words. We were reprimanded by the office of the Imam Khomeini and the seminary.’ He cursed and shouted so loudly that many other people gathered near the office.”
“We told him that our brother had been martyred” Mr. Alaei, Gholamreza’s brother, continues. “We asked: Why do you insult us instead of giving your condolences? Why do you call these words misguided? Before you realized these were the words of Bahaʼu'llah, you admired them, now you are saying that they are misguided? And the discussion dragged on for a long time.”
The official in charge of ideology at the Foundation of Martyrs eventually scheduled a meeting to talk with the Alaei family and to “guide” them. Gholamreza Alaei's brother says: “We had an ideological conversation for three hours behind closed doors. At the end of the meeting, the official in charge shook my hand and said that they could not do anything because the order had come from the office of Imam Khomeini and Gholamreza Alaei's case had been archived forever.”