Yukon Baha’i anxious as Tehran trial begins

Members of Yukon's Baha'i community are monitoring the trial of seven leaders of their faith in Tehran, Iran, this week. "They could be put to death. They could be hung."

Members of Yukon’s Baha’i community are monitoring the trial of seven leaders of their faith in Tehran, Iran, this week.

“They could be put to death. They could be hung,” said David Thompson, a Whitehorse resident who converted to the faith 40 years ago while living in Dawson City.

The religion’s central tenants is that “God is one, mankind is one, religions are one,” struck a chord in Thompson at the time.

“To me, that was a revelation,” he said.

But Baha’i have faced a long history of persecution in their religion’s place of origin, Persia, which is present-day Iran.

The country’s powerful Islamic clerics have never been warm to the Baha’i faith’s assertion Muhammad was just one of a succession of prophets, followed by Baha’u’llah, who founded the Baha’i faith in 1844.

Baha’i are believed to number around 300,000 in Iran, a tiny fraction of the country’s population of 66.4 million.

There are about 150 Baha’i in the Yukon, Thompson estimates. Of those, five families are of Iranian origin.

In March and May of 2008, seven Bahai’ leaders in Tehran were arrested. They face charges of “espionage for Israel, insulting religious sanctities and propaganda against the system.”

Amnesty International dismisses these accusations as baseless. The human rights group says the men and women were detained “solely because of their conscientiously held beliefs or their peaceful activities on behalf of the Baha’i community.”

The seven are also charged with “mofsed fil arz,” or being corrupt on earth. That offence carries the death penalty.

Last week, Iranian prosecutors further accused the seven of having cached weapons and ammunition in their homes, and of playing an organizing role in riots that have followed the contested re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June.

These new allegations are rejected by fellow Baha’i as being unbelievable.

Their faith preaches absolute non-violence. It also compels them to follow the rule of law and to steer clear of partisan politics.

That makes Baha’i unlikely participants in Iran’s recent street protests, said Thompson.

Instead, he suspects the Iranian government has singled out the seven Baha’i as convenient scapegoats. He expects them to receive little more than a show trial.

But their plight isn’t hopeless, said Thompson. In the past, international outrage has encouraged the Iranian courts to overturn politically motivated sentences, he said.

“The best thing we have is public opinion and the word of our government,” he said.

Lawrence Cannon, Canada’s minister of Foreign Affairs, said in a statement on Friday he was “deeply concerned” by the continued imprisonment of the seven Baha’i leaders and called for their immediate release.

“It is deplorable that these individuals were detained on the sole basis of their faith and have been denied a fair trial,” he said.

This week’s trial is part of a long history of the Iranian government’s persecution of Baha’i, said Thompson.

“This is a systemic cultural cleansing,” he said.

In 1933, Iran banned Baha’i literature, stopped recognizing Baha’i marriages and began to demote or fire Baha’i in the civil service.

In 1979, the Iranian government blocked Baha’i from attending university and members of the Revolutionary Guard demolished the House of Bab, one of Baha’i’s holiest sites.

More than 200 Baha’i have been killed by the Iranian government since 1979, according to the Baha’i International Community.

All this serves as a reminder of how lucky Canadians are to be able to take for granted the freedoms we enjoy, said Thompson.

“We live in one of the most wonderful countries in the planet,” he said.

“Imagine waking up at 3 a.m., having your door kicked in and being dragged into your yard because of your religion.

“We’re protected. They’re not.”

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.

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