Ten days after the murder of Ataollah Rezvani, a Baha’i citizen of Bandar Abbas in Southern Iran, details surroudning the killing and its perpetrator remain shrouded in mystery. According to sources close to the victim, authorities have advised Mr. Rezavani’s family to avoid speaking to the media about the incident. An open message of condolence to the family and condemnation of the killing, recently issued by Ayatollah Tehrani, a pro-reform cleric, has been a significant new development, underscoring how a policy of imposed silence is ineffective in keeping Iranian society unaware and unmoved by such events. In an interview with Dr. Farhad Sabetan, the spokesperson for the Baha’i International Community, IranWire examines the various dimensions around the tragic death of Mr. Rezvani.
It appears that the more time passes since Mr. Rezvani’s murder, the less information is emerging about this case. Do you have any new details?
Such a trend is not unprecedented. In all similar cases, the Iranian regime has behaved the same way. Since 2004, at least nine Baha’is have been murdered suspiciously and 52 others have been physically attacked. All requests and queries for investigation of the cases and the lawsuits that have been filed in these cases have been fruitless. In this specific case, our follow-up indicates that Mr. Rezvani’s family are trying to reach a fair and transparent process for the case through the help of responsible organizations. That their efforts have been fruitless is nothing new or strange.
You have said previously that Baha’is in Iran are deprived of citizenship rights and in previous cases have not even been permitted to have lawyers representing them. Has it been so in this particular case as well?
This is a general practice. A Baha’i is under pressure from the regime and is deprived of his/her citizenship rights from birth to death. Mr. Rezavani was banned from continuing his education and dismissed from the university in the 1980s. When he became a resident of Bandar Abbas, his business and work rights were also restricted. The Friday Imam of the city incited the people against citizens such as Mr. Rezvani, whose activities were mainly social and for charity. Even some of his affiliates had threatened Mr. Rezvani, demanding his departure from the city, meaning that some are considering taking away a Baha’i’s right to choose his residence location. These restrictions are not limited to the work or residence environment. For example, some members of the Baha’i community are in prison and cannot be in contact with their families and children. Some members of Mr. Rezvani’s family have also been in prison and do not have access to their families. Right now, we even have cases where they have not even issued burial permits for people who have deceased, or we have reports about resumption of demolitions of Baha’i cemeteries. Therefore there is a general trend that encompasses all life moments of the Baha’is.
You mentioned Mr. Rezvani’s social and charity activities. This is a subject the Iranian government has invoked as well, arguing that the Bahai's community often uses social or charitable activities as a front to prosleytize. Do you accept this accusation?
You bring up an important point. We must clarify what religious propaganda means. The Baha’is have a right to carry out their religious rituals, to worship, to visit with their affiliates, and to provide their children with religious teachings, and they do those things.
I meant social activities, teaching, and propagating for other citizens.
We must view this issue from the viewpoint of resistance. First, within the Iranian society, we witness daily, constant, and widespread attacks from regime figures and the media against the Baha’is. These attacks cause the Iranian citizens to develop questions. Many of them ask members of the Baha’i community, who are you and what have you done to cause them to portray you like this? The image people have of the Baha’is is not what the regime portrays and these differences and contradictions create questions for people. In fact the Baha’is have to react to these questions and actions and to explain to others what their ideas are and how they think. Therefore, the propaganda activities are a type of effort to alleviate the misunderstandings and to answer questions, brought about by the environment the regime has created itself.
In addition to the reactions you mentioned, Baha’i community members usually either keep silent or leave Iran. On a macro level, what plans do you have for dealing with this pressure? For example, in the case of the persecution you mentioned, have you taken legal action against the Islamic Republic of Iran, or have you documented the claims to back up their accuracy?
We pursue the issue on an international level. Since the establishment of the United Nations, the International Baha’i Community’s NGO has become active within the UN and monitors changes and submits reports to international organizations. We also submit reports to the Human Rights Commission. Additionally, citizens residing in different countries inform authorities in their countries of the repeated cases of violations of human rights. I must stress, however, that our activities in this area are not limited to the rights of Baha’i citizens. The main focus of our reports is human rights and we have also reported the violations of human rights of other minority groups, as well.
I asked that question because some believe that the International Baha’i Community’s activities are often limited to issuing statements, or some believe that the community reacted to Mr. Rezvani’s murder with a delay.
No, that’s not true. We use all available means and venues in order to ensure the rights of the Baha’is and all the other citizens who face persecution. About dissemination of information, I must say that the International Baha’i Community is not a news organization whose mission is to publish any news it receives immediately. We are a credible organization. Our credibility is a result of our honesty and attention in the reports we submit to sources and international organizations. This approach must not be compromised. Therefore we try to review all the different dimensions and details of a news item after we receive it and to report violations of citizenship rights in an exact and transparent manner to public opinion and related organizations. Therefore, our careful view is intended to protect the credibility of this organization. There was no delay.
You mentioned your pursuit for other minorities’ rights. Iranian human rights and opposition activists also reacted to Mr. Rezvani’s murder. Are the reactions limited to expression of sympathy, or is there a defined and organized relationship between you and civil activists as far as human rights are concerned?
We welcome any type of organized relationship. We have tried ourselves to take the first step in this regard. But we should be aware that the Iranian regime has labeled and intimidated anyone who has defended the rights of the Baha’is. A clear case of this is Dr. Shirin Ebadi, whom they tried to accuse of different charges. Nonetheless this approach has not led to a retreat by human rights activists, and we observe that their motivation and their extent of activities in defense of human rights is on the rise both inside and outside Iran.
There are many organizations involved in this area at the moment. How can their social, organizational, and media capabilities become more unified in order for them to provide better coverage to each other in their monitoring of violations of citizens' rights in Iran? Do you have a specific strategy in this area?
We are prepared to participate in such processes. I have participated in many seminars and related programs myself and welcome any human rights activist’s initiative for further collaboration. I hope that by expanding our views, we would reach such points, too.
In addition to civil activists, during the Rezvani murder case, we observed high ranking clerics such as Ayatollah Tehrani also issued statements of sympathy. What is your evaluation of this message?
After the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Montazeri, I believe this message is one of the most important statements a prominent Shia leader has issued. Its importance is not only in a Shia Ayatollah’s support for a group who believe in a religion in which he has no belief himself, but in his discussing very fundamental, key, and rudimentary issues (such as expansion of wisdom, avoiding blind religious beliefs, expansion of a human rights culture, Iran belonging to all Iranians, etc.), issues that other Ayatollah’s could probably see as apostasy.
Ayatollah Tehrani quite modestly described the murder of Ataollah Rezvani a heartbreaking and unfair incident, and deeply sympathized with his family. In a society where Baha’is and their faith are routinely, systematically, and pervasively attacked, his courage in expressing his feelings is deeply admirable. Ayatollah Tehrani also has unprecedented rationale for eradicating the sense of alienation and duality. He sets forth several comparable examples of the history of religions to indicate that the present religious fanaticism is just as destructive as events we have observed in the history of Christianity and Islam, and he concludes that just because a belief is not accepted by the ruling group, the followers of that belief’s citizenship rights should not be violated. I believe Ayatollah Tehrani has already started the dialogue for eradicating alienation in Iran and by Iranians, and I hope that his colleagues would also continue this constructive and humane dialogue.
Aytaollah Tehrani has pointed to several important factors in his message. He has identified this murder a result of blind religious fanaticism. Fighting blind religious fanaticism is also defined as a goal for religious intellectuals. Are you in touch with this group of clerics, or have you tried to use their help to encourage moderation in the way Baha’is are perceived and treated?
Most unfortunately, the ruling clerics in Iran have obstructed any type of constructive contact or dialogue with Baha’i citizens, and have devoted all their energy to suppression, attacks, hate, fighting, and violence against Baha’i Iranians. During the first few years following the revolution, the Iranian Baha’i community wrote an open letter to the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in which the Baha’is position was clearly defined, and attempted to address the accusations waged against this community. Baha’is have repeatedly reported cruelties to which they have been subjected to different levels of the Iranian regime and religious leaders and have asked for justice.
None of these requests have received any attention and the dialogue between the Baha’is and the religious leaders has remained fruitless. In recent years, however, some religious intellectuals have spontaneously brought forth significant topics about religious tolerance, eliminating fanaticism, upholding human rights, tolerance, and reconciliation, and creating solidarity, especially as pertains the Baha’I faith. For the Baha’i community, whose history has developed with such concepts, this positive step is admirable and the Baha’is have and will participate in this dialogue, not only to clarify their positions, but to further and establish such dialogues as the basis and root for Iran’s progress and development.
Ayatollah Tehrani has also emphasized that citizenship rights are not defined according to religious-, belief-, ethnic-, or gender-based affiliations, and has spoken of the Iranian people’s general recognition of every individual’s human rights. Do you think there are certain approaches the civil, human rights, and social activists should note in order to make these important aspects bolder and more institutionalized?
I believe that as a recognized religious leader, Ayatollah Tehrani brought up a topic on which Iran’s contiguity, sovereignty, unity, and power are dependent—that human rights are not defined by an individual’s religious, ethnic, or gender background, but with that individual’s right to decide and choose, the rights that define him as a human being. A human being is not defined by his belief, gender, or race, because every Christian, every Muslim, every Baha’i, every Baluchi, every Kurd, every man and every woman are first human beings. But if we deny the same individuals from their right to decide and choose, he is no longer a human being, as animals do not have the power to make aware decisions and choices and merely act on their instincts. Therefore realizing human rights and as a first step the right to freedom, is the most basic human right that reconstructs his identity. Without this right, there is no identity as a human being, but this right to choose is the root of all social actions and without it, the society would turn into a machine, or a mechanical collection that is under the control of one driver. The significance of Ayatollah Tehrani’s statement is that it changes human beings from a mechanical apparatus to an organic, alive, dynamic, and free entity who forms the pure basis for economics, sociology, and political science. In reality, dictatorships want a mechanical society in which no one has the right to think, choose, and determine his or her destiny, but a leading and progressive society does not have harmony and consistency with such an approach and demands elimination of roots of fanaticism and supremacy which are causes of monopolies, so that people can free and nurture their creative gifts.