Members of Bahai Faith in Iran Accuse Government of Religious Bias, Unfairly Detaining Leaders

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Members of the Bahai faith on Thursday accused Iran of jailing their top religious leaders earlier this month out of religious bias rather than security reasons.

Iran raided the homes of top Bahai leaders on May 14 and threw six of them in the notorious Evin prison north of Tehran. A seventh leader was detained March 5, according to Bahai officials.

An Iranian government spokesman said the arrests aimed to defend Iran's national security and had "nothing to do with ideological issues."

"This is an organized group that has acted against the country's interests and has connections with foreigners, especially the Zionists," spokesman Gholam Hossein Elham said Tuesday at a news conference.

But the Bahai International Community issued a statement Thursday saying "allegations by Iran that six Bahais were arrested for security reasons and not for their faith are utterly baseless and without documentation."

The Bahai religion was founded in the 1860s by a Persian nobleman, Baha'u'llah, who claimed to be a new prophet in the series that included Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. Islam considers Muhammad to be the last of the prophets.

Bani Dugal, the Bahai envoy to the United Nations, accused the Iranian government of seeking to uproot Bahais because of their faith.

"The documented plan of the Iranian government has always been to destroy the Bahai community, and these latest arrests represent an intensification of this plan... The group of Bahais arrested...are being persecuted solely because of their religious beliefs," Dugal said Thursday by telephone from Geneva.

The seven detained are Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeed Rezaei, Behrouz Tavakkoli, Vahid Tizfam and Mahvash Sabet, according to Bahai leaders.

Naeim Tavakkoli, son of one of those detained, said he was worried about his 57-year-old father's health in prison.

"This is completely a lie to relate Bahais to national security affairs," Tavakkoli said in an e-mail from the U.S.

On Wednesday, the European Union called on Iran to stop persecuting Bahais and release those detained.

"The EU reiterates its serious concern about the continuing systematic discrimination and harassment of the Iranian Bahais on the grounds of their religion," a EU statement said.

Bahais have been persecuted by current and past Iranian regimes. In 1868, several Bahais were exiled to Palestine, now Israel, where they built shrines in Haifa, which they now consider a holy city.

Iran had been the cradle of the Bahai faith in the middle of the 19th century. But after the 1979 Islamic revolution, the faith was banned and it is not recognized in the Iranian constitution as a religious minority.

However, the Iranian constitution recognizes Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians as religious minorities who have their own lawmakers in parliament.

Last January, Iran sentenced more than 50 followers of the Bahai faith to prison for proselytizing and distributing propaganda against the country's ruling Islamic establishment, according to Iranian judicial authorities. Another 51 Bahai followers were given one-year suspended prison terms following their detention in Shiraz, southern Iran.