Daniel Wheatley and Padideh Sabeti

Introduction to the Bahá’í Faith

The Baha’i Faith is a monotheistic and an independent world religion, established by Baha’u’llah (meaning the Glory of God) in the middle of the 19th century. He taught that God sends divine educators to guide mankind with teachings appropriate and suited to different stages of humanity’s evolution and development. He confirmed the authentic and divine nature of all  the world’s faiths, providing the foundation for building unity among members of different religions. He further explained that messengers of God address both eternal spiritual truths, which is common among all religions, and the particular needs of their time. These needs change over time, so divine revelation is progressive in nature. 

Baha’is believe that Baha’u’llah is the latest in a series of divine educators. The crucial need facing humanity is to find a unifying vision of the future of society and of the nature and purpose of life. Baha’u’llah’s key theme is world unity and his teaching pivots around the principle of the oneness of mankind at a time when a new paradigm is taking hold about the interconnectedness of our challenges and the need for greater cooperation at all levels. Baha’u’llah’steachings speak to the values that should guide individual lives as well as relationships between and within nations to secure a peaceful future.

The Báb, and Bahá’u’lláh, Martyr and Prisoner of Conscience – the lives of the two founding spiritual figures and their experience of denial of FoRB

The Bahá’í Faith acknowledges two prophetic figures from the 19th century (CE), whom we revere as Manifestations of God, (or Prophets in the parlance of Abrahamic Faiths) and our Faith affirms other great figures in history, including Zoroaster, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed.The figures known to history as the Báb (the Gate) and Bahá’u’lláh (the Glory of God) are the twin primary sources of the Bahá’í Writings. 

It is notable therefore that both of these figures, central to Bahá’i Faith, experienced and endured the most severe consequences of religious intolerance, suffering respectively from martyrdom, torture, exile, imprisonment, detention and as prisoners of conscience.

In the middle of the 19th century—one of the most turbulent periods in the world’s history—a young merchant announced that He was the bearer of a message destined to transform the life of humanity. At a time when His country, Iran, was undergoing widespread moral breakdown, His message aroused excitement and hope among all classes, rapidly attracting thousands of followers. He took the name “The Báb”, meaning “the Gate” in Arabic.

With His call for spiritual and moral reformation, and His attention to improving the position of women and the lot of the poor, the Báb’s prescription for spiritual renewal was revolutionary. At the same time, He founded a distinct, independent religion of His own, inspiring His followers to transform their lives and carry out great acts of heroism. Ref

The Báb announced that humanity stood at the threshold of a new era. His mission, which was to last only six years, was to prepare the way for the coming of a Manifestation of God Who would usher in the age of peace and justice promised in all the world’s religions: Bahá’u’lláh.

His claim to be the bearer of a message from God, and the rate of conversion to his new religion (known as Bábism) provoked fear and hostility from powerful elements within the Iranian clergy and government.[1]

The scholar Peter Smith offers an estimate from contemporary sources that over 100,000 Iranians declared themselves Babis in the first 4 years of the Bab’s mission, and the numbers are believed to have continued to grow after 1848. [2] Fearing the growing influence of this new religion, the Shi’a clergy pressured the government to take action to repress the movement. The Bab Himself was arrested and imprisoned in the remote fortress of Maku, in north-west Iran. On the 9th July 1850, the Bab was executed by a regiment of 750 soldiers in a barracks in the town of Tabriz on the orders of the Persian Prime Minister, and having been charged with apostasy.

Across the mid 19th century there were anti-Babi pogroms resulting in tens of thousands of deaths.  Lord Curzon, a British diplomat witnessed the violence suppression of the Babis during his travels to Iran in 1899, and also published an influential work, “Persia and the Persian Question” in 1892. A summary of his witness to the pogroms was published in the Times of London, and stated: “On Saturday 27 June (1899) the rabble brought a Babi prisoner before him (the Governor of Yazd). He refused to execute the man, presumably because there was no real case against him. Thereupon the whole city rose in disorder. The bazaars were all closed: the palace was surrounded by a howling mob and a hunt for the hated Babis was begun by the populace, who were assisted in their pious undertaking by the official messengers of the Governor and even by the soldiers. The houses of the hated sectaries were broken into and looted, and the Babis themselves, wherever they were met, were murdered with such cruelties as suggested themselves to their persecutors, and their mutilated bodies were dragged in triumph through the street” [3]

The academic Denis MacEoin suggests up to 20,000 adherents of the Babi religion were killed in the mid 19th century.[4]

The intensity and ferocity of the onslaught of the clergy and the state against the new religion in their midst was such that the Bab’is were demoralised and fractured. Their martyred leader had foretold of a new messenger from God, and one of those who had taken up the claims of the Bab was a Persian nobleman and son of a Minister at the court of the Shah, named Mirza Husayn-Ali,. This person was the historical figure that Bahá’is acknowledge as the fulfilment of the Bab’s prophecy and is known now as Bahá’u’lláh (the Glory of God) and revered as a Manifestation of God and the primary source of the Bahá’í Revelation. 

Bahá’u’lláh, who was already acclaimed for renouncing worldly wealth and political power and known as “the father of the poor” for his charity, emerged as a leader amongst the Bab’is, whose community was still under great repression. In 1852 Bahá’u’lláh was arrested, imprisoned and severely tortured in a notorious dungeon in Tehran, the Siyah Chal (the Black Pit). Bahá’is recognise Bahá’u’lláh as a Manifestation of God, mandated by God to impart divine revelation to humanity.

Bahá’u’lláh was confined in atrocious conditions for at least four months During this time He was beaten on the feet with a heavy cane, or “bastinado” – a painful torture used in Iran at this time. He was also bound in heavy chains, and Bahá’u’lláh bore the marks of this torture for the rest of His mortal life. 

The killing of the Báb in 1850 had not stemmed the rising tide of religious foment and the attraction of the people to the Babi teachings. The Persian authorities declined therefore to proffer Bahá’u’lláh the “crown of martyrdom”, resolving instead to send Him into exile. He left Tehran in 1853, and passed the remainder of His mortal life, passing in 1892, in a succession of locations within the Ottoman Empire.  Arriving in Bagdad in April 1853, Bahá’u’lláh continued to attract followers and under pressure from the Iranian court, the Ottomans resolved to send Him further west, to Adrianople (Edirne). In the last 12 days before departure from Bagdad, on 21 April 1863, Bahá’u’lláh declared to a small number of His family and followers that He was the fulfilment of the Báb’s prophecy, a new messenger from God. 

Despite the attempts of the Persian and Ottoman authorities to reduce Bahá’u’lláh’s influence, the new Bahá’í Faith began to rapidly grow. He was sent further west on 12th August 1868, this time to the Ottoman penal colony at Akka, next to the port of Haifa. Bahá’u’lláh lived until 1892 and His life was beset with arrest, imprisonment, torture, and living for nearly 40 years as a prisoner of conscience.

Thus, the Bahá’í Faith’s two founding figure were both individuals who endured extreme cruelty and even death as a denial of religious freedom. 

What do the Bahá’í Writings say on freedom of religion or belief?

The Bahá’í Writings stress the principle of independent investigation of truth and reality. Abdul Bahá, Bahá’u’lláh’s son and appointed successor, writes, “Baha’u’llah continually urges man to free himself from the superstitions and traditions of the past and become an investigator of reality.” 

The Bahá’i call for all people to have a right to independent investigation sits within the historical context of its founding figure offering a message, religious and spiritual in nature, first to the population of the land of Iran, and over time to all people in the world. In the lifetimes of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh, as this paper has already discussed, freedom to explore new or alternative religious truths was harshly suppressed and often resulted in imprisonment, torture and death. The Bahá’i support for freedom of religion or belief, as it is expressed in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in articles of international law derived from the Declaration, such as the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, and other instruments of human rights, is therefore informed by both a foundational principle of the Bahá’í Faith and by the extensive and profound suffering of the founding figures of the Bahá’í religion and of substantial numbers of its first generations of converts and adherents.

Community Life: What Bahá’ís teach, practice and model on freedom of religion within our own community?

Secular and atheist schools of thought have made criticism of a perceived double standard in how religious institutions and religious communities petition for freedom of religion or belief for their own believers, yet may deny or create barriers to the rights of those who question or reject religious orthodoxy, either from within or outside of a religious community. In extreme cases we may see religious communities where those in institutional power abuse or deny freedom of thought, conscience and belief to members of their own congregations who challenge their own institutions or arrive at a position where they reject some beliefs, practices or rules within their faith community, or wish to leave it. 

Entrance into the Bahá’í community involves a simple “declaration of faith” In some countries those who join the Faith may sign a declaration card, reflecting the nature of this spiritual commitment, such as this wording from Australia: “I wish to become a member of the Baha’i community. I accept Baha’u’llah as the Bearer of God’s Message for this Day and will endeavour to follow His teachings and the Baha’i way of life. I also accept the authority of the institutions which administer the affairs of the Baha’i community.” [5]

It is important to note that proselytising and forced conversion is forbidden in the Teachings of Bahá’u’lláh. A conversion from either inducements or threats, physical or spiritual, is not acceptable, and therefore acceptance  of the Baha’i Faith must be freely given and under no duress. 

It is an observable reality for all religious communities that alongside those who seek, explore and convert to a non-natal faith, there will be a number of people within any religious community who, for a range of reasons, may wish to leave that religion. Historically in a number of religious faiths such an action has been categorised as apostasy, and seen as a betrayal of one’s religion. Even today some states still retain severe punishments in law for apostasy, and indeed Bahá’ís in Iran have been executed for this reason by the Iranian state. 

The global governing body of the Bahá’í Faith, the Universal House of Justice, explains the position succinctly: 

“Acceptance of the Faith is the voluntary act of an individual and is registered by the appropriate Bahá’í institution unless it has good reason not to do so. Likewise, a Bahá’í is free to leave the Faith voluntarily.”[6]

Those who no longer wish to practice the Bahá’í Faith are free to withdraw.

Children born into religious families will usually be raised in the belief systems of their parents, and Bahá’í communities invest resources, time and thought on moral and spiritual education for children and youth. It is important to point out that since Baha’u’llah confirmed the divine origin of other major world religions , Bahai children are actively encouraged to learn about other systems of belief and learn to respect other religions in a manner that goes beyond tolerance but coming to some understanding about the contribution of other religions towards world civilizations.

 Several points of principle are important here:  Bahá’i children are raised with the teachings of their Faith and in social and communal spaces of their religion, such as prayer meetings, religious gatherings, and celebrations of Holy Days until the age of 15. At 15 children are regarded as having reached a stage of sufficient maturity to make their own decision if they wish to declare their own faith as a Bahá’í, or to explore other religious and philosophical traditions, or not to follow any specific system of beliefs. Youth who were not raised in Bahá’i households may declare themselves as Bahá’is with the consent of their parents under the age of 21, and any person over the age of 21 may declare as a Bahá’i. [7]

In summary then, people are free to enter or to leave the Bahá’i community as their conscience dictates, although registration is formally administered by the Bahá’i institutions. Coercive means of pressuring others to convert to the Faith is expressly forbidden. Children raised to the age of 15 may choose for themselves to remain within the Bahá’í community or not, and it is impermissible for parents to put pressure on their children’s decision in this matter.

The Bahá’í community in Iran: A study in resilience

The Bahá’i community has faced denial of freedom of religion or belief in a small number of states across the world. Yet it is in Iran, the “cradle” of the Faith, and point of its inception, where Bahá’is have faced persecution dating from its very founding. Since the formation of the Islamic Republic of Iran after the 1979 revolution, Bahá’is have faced policies of systematic persecution and a government whose aim is nothing short of the extirpation of a viable Bahá’í community in Iran. The story of Iran’s is both a telling example of the suppression of a peaceful religious community, but also a study in constructive resilience by those receiving these injustices.

The episodic and sometimes brutal persecution of the Bahá’is under the Iranian monarchies from 1844 to 1979 gave way to a government after the revolution that has targeted Bahá’is for repression at every stage of their lives. A full account of the wide-ranging persecution may be read here: https://www.bic.org/sites/default/files/pdf/iran/thebahaiquestionrevisited_final_160839e.pdf but it may be instructive to note the salient feature of how Bahá’is are targeted in Iran from 1979 through to the present day. All Bahá’is may be confidentially identified and monitored in accordance with a 2005 letter issued to all police, security and paramilitary agencies by Major General Sirus Firuzabadi, who was at that time the Chairman of the Command Headquarters of the Iranian Armed Forces. The 1991 memorandum, referred to in other sections of this article and available to read as an appendix in the hyperlink above, provides for policies that direct that Bahá’i school-children should be enrolled in schools with “ a strong and imposing religious ideology.”[8] The same policy mandates that Bahá’is attempting to enter higher education “must be expelled from universities, either in the admission process or during the course of their studies, once it becomes known that they are Bahá’ís”[9]. In the wider economy, the policy clearly states: “ Deny them employment if they identify themselves as Bahá’ís.” 

In addition to facing denial of a range of social, economic and educational rights, Bahá’is are also subject to arrest, detention and imprisonment, including through increasing use of Tazir laws, a discretionary and quite arbitrary sentence where no penalty is already prescribed in the Shariah. Beyond those abuses under the identifiable ambit of the state, there is a growing phenomenon of incitement to hatred against Bahá’is in a range of Iranian media, including state-controlled media. The hatred that is ceaselessly directed against Bahá’is is viewed as a likely driver for a number of violent attacks and murders of Bahá’is, such as the 2013 murder of Mr Ataollah Rezvani, a prominent Bahá’I whose death was ascribed to religiously motivated violence.[10]

The drive and endurance of the Bahais in Iran is sustained and strengthened by their commitment to unity and by the vision of the Bahai approach to social change which avoids all forms of divisive or antagonistic action. the Baha´’ı´ community does not subscribe to the practice of civil disobedience or non-violent antagonism that animates many current movements.

Baha’is believe that strategies for achieving lasting social change must be conscious of the material and spiritual aspects of change both at individual and societal level. It does not neglect the transformation that needs to take place in the hearts of both the oppressors and the oppressed. In this respect any strategy that pit one group against another are not considered conducive to spiritual transformation and lasting change.

Hence the forbearance and sincere conduct of the Baha’is inside Iran has, to some degree, lessened the campaign against Baha’is, as many Muslim , neighbours, friends, and private employers and progressive forces inside Iran have overcome their prejudices and have taken measures to shield and defend the Baha’i’s.  A notable number of Iranian intellectuals, journalists and film makers, and civil society are beginning to openly voice their concern regarding the persecution of Baha’is and some are beginning to advocate constitutional and legal change for the protection of the Baha´is.

One of the most constructive steps taken by the Baha’is in Iran has been the establishment of the Bahai Institute for higher education (BIHE) after nearly a decade of denial of access to state universities and without any recourse to justice. The Iranian authorities effort’s to disrupt BIHE by raiding hundreds of Baha’i homes, and imprisoning the faculty has been, to this date, unsuccessful and only bolstered the students of the BIHE to utilise their hard-earned knowledge for the betterment of society.

While Baha’is inside Iran expended their energies in discovering a constructive response to the oppression they experienced, the Baha’i communities around the world have, by their appeal and request, raised global awareness to give visibility to their circumstance and ”appeal for justice within the emerging international framework of moral and legal norms”.

Principles and action at the local level

For the Baha’i Community freedom of religion or belief is an essential component of a larger responsibility to foster spiritual values and attitudes-the two are closely related and mutually reinforcing. 

Freedom of belief is not a matter of knowledge or a concept to be endorsed or to be enforced by legislation alone. Implementation of freedom or belief at the societal level requires a heightened state of consciousness that goes beyond acquiescence and bestows acceptance of diverse views and beliefs by drawing on virtues such as generosity, kindness, humility and justice to create a harmonious society. Enactment of freedom of belief at this level can therefore flow from expression of certain qualities and virtues. As mentioned earlier, it is through the operation of virtues that individual and groups could resist the draw to prejudice and othering.

From this perspective creating a spirit of acceptance or tolerance of other’s beliefs is bound up with the process of moral and spiritual development. It allows freedom of belief to take root as a societal norm. Current barriers to the full enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief must be superseded by the establishment of just relationships among individuals, and communities, with varied belief systems that will uplift all and will not designate anyone as “other”.

Over the past several decades the Baha’i community has established informal but systematic spiritual educational processes based on Baha’i teachings, with the goal of moral and spiritual empowerment of communities around the world. From the experience of the Baha’i community an integrated system of education is the most effective way to raise up active actors that gain confidence in their ability to investigate reality for herself and decide what they believe. 

Many of the current educational systems in our world either lack any spiritual dimension or place a greater emphasis on differences between various systems of beliefs. Hence there are no spaces where our understanding of different belief systems could healthily evolve. Unfettered investigation of truth when correctly channelled will allow freedom from corrosive impact of prejudice.

A prominent characteristic of the Baha’i education programme is that it is open to people of all backgrounds. The participants undertake ongoing conversations about the nature and wisdom of spiritual and moral values with a twofold purpose; to apply them to their daily lives and transform their own characters and that of their communities. At the same time they aim to strengthen bonds of friendship and establish meaningful patterns of communication among people of various backgrounds. Such a system allows exposure to diversity of views but with a unifying and pragmatic aim to create the desire to serve one’s community irrespective of people’s background or belief. 

Much attention has been devoted to create an environment to reflect on commonly shared spiritual principles rather than doctrinal differences or claims of exclusivity which are barriers to freedom of Belief. The tutors of the courses are there to facilitate learning and make it clear that the teachings of the Baha’i faith prohibit any form of proselytization (ref Ruhi book 1 introduction). Although the primary aim of this system is not the explicit  promotion of FoRB per se, the principle is implicit and enshrined in the programme, format and the aims and objectives of the process.

Since the Baha’i community has limited resources to deploy in advocacy work for the myriad of violations of FoRB across the world, it sees its role in addressing the foundational causes of religious difference and discrimination.

Principles and action at the multi-lateral level 

When a challenge arises in a country first and foremost the Bahai institutions will take initial steps to learn about the underlying reasons for persecution and try to address them internally. In most cases the Baha’i institutions in that country turn towards their government and legal remedies, such as the judiciary, to address the matters that have arisen. On occasions when constitutional or institutional powers are used in a manner that deny Bahá’is their fundamental rights, and in denial of such rights as enshrined in Article 18 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, the matter is referred to the Bahai International Community who will coordinate the work with the aid of affiliated offices such as the Office of Public Affairs of the Baha’is of the UK.

The Baha’i International Community represents the worldwide Baha’i community, whose members come from every national, ethnic, religious, cultural, and socio-economic background, representing a cross-section of humanity. The Baha’i International Community registered with the UN as an NGO in 1948 and currently has  consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social council (ECOSOC) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), as well as accreditation with the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) and the United Nations Department of Public Information (DPI). The Baha’i International Community collaborates with the UN and its specialized agencies, as well as member states, inter- and non-governmental organizations, academia, and practitioners.

The Bahai International Community has varied focused areas with ultimate aim to contribute to the construction of a more peaceful and just global order. To achieve this, at this time, BIC’s work revolves around certain themes namely; the equality of women and men, human rights and well-being of humankind, development and community building, youth as protagonists of constructive change, the role of religion in society, and the situation of the Baha’is in Iran. 

Working at the community level, Baha’is around the world are striving to build capacity on larger and larger scales, enabling people everywhere to become protagonists of development in a non-adversarial manner. 

Shoulder to shoulder: walking alongside friends and colleagues of all faiths and none

The Bahá’í community is a faith community, rather than a human rights organisation, and only has the knowledge and experience to comment on the specific situations where Bahá’ís face denial of freedom of religion or belief, such as the longstanding concerns in Iran, and more recent issues in Yemen. 

The Bahá’í Faith does however have a fundamental commitment to freedom of religion or belief for all members of the human family, rooted in its principles and scripture, understood through the travails of its two founding figures, the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh, as well as over 170 years of full spectrum persecution of those who follow its creed. Bahá’is moreover seek to live and practice freedom of religion or belief for all, actively promoting and facilitating the search for spiritual truth through both formal and informal educational efforts within their communities.

The Bahá’í commitment to freedom of religion or belief at the level of principle has brought the community into many fruitful and positive collaborations with people of all faiths and beliefs, including those of secular and humanist philosophy, at the level of the wider discourse on freedom of religion or belief. The 2019 report in Foreign Office support for persecuted Christians by the Bishop of Truro[11] has served as a catalyst for both UK policy in defence of Christian communities but also the wider work of the FCDO on freedom religion or belief. 

Bahá’í communities across the world seek to learn, and to contribute to the extent of their limitations, to some of the collective endeavours to promote freedom of religion or belief, including side events at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva and towards the work of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom in the USA. In the UK context Bahá’is work shoulder to shoulder with friends and colleagues, including Christians, Muslims and Humanists, amongst others, as stakeholders in the All Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief. The group’s shared work includes the publication of an annual Commentary Report on freedom of religion or belief in the world, which highlights both state and regions of concern, but also thematic issues such as the exploitation of the Covid crisis to further marginalise faith and belief communities as well as the relationship between gender-based discrimination and freedom of religion or belief. 

Concluding Comments:

The Bahá’í community has a commitment to freedom of religion or belief enshrined into the core principles of their faith. Such principles are infused by the heroic sacrifices and sufferings of the two founding figures of the religion. In its history of over 170 years Bahá’is have endured with fortitude and courage the same abuses as their prophetic figures, from imprisonment and exile to torture and even death. Persecution has been a feature of life for several Bahá’í communities in the world but it has been the Bahá’ís in Iran who have withstood repeated and systematic attempts to drive them from their religious beliefs.

In the face of all the privations, abuses and cruelties that have been unjustly directed against them the Iranian Bahá’is, whose only purpose is to serve their community, their nation and humanity, have endured. The infant religion that the authorities attempted to destroy with mass violence in the 19th century and to extirpate with state policy in the 20thand 21st century, has responded to injustice with a culture of constructive resilience, refusing to bear the mantle of victimhood or imbibe the poison of vengefulness. In the years since 750 bullets shattered the body of the Báb, the Bahá’i faith has flowered in 188 nation-states across the world, and millions of members of the human family of every race, culture and language have accepted the teachings of Bahá’u’llah and the Báb as the basis for their spiritual and moral guidance. Whilst the Bahá’ís in Iran, and also Yemen, remain denied of the freedoms to live, worship and serve to the full extent of their inalienable rights, each passing day, Bahá’is in every other neighbourhood and corner of the earth, honour their resilience through service, prayer and joyful fellowship with their friends and neighbours.

[1] For further details see, Vahman F, “The Bab and the Babi Community of Iran”, One World Publications, UK, 2020 – https://oneworld-publications.com/the-bab-and-the-babi-community-of-iran-hb.html

[2]  See Smith P, “A Note on Babi and Baha’i Numbers in Iran, Iranian Studies,  Vol 17, number 2/3 Summer 1984, Taylor and Francis Ltd.

[3] See reproduction of Times article in the Montreal Gazette of 1903 here: https://www.newspapers.com/clip/21374268/lord-curzons-summary-of-babibahai/

[4] See MacEoin D, https://bahai-library.com/maceoin_babism_militancy

[5] See: https://bahaiteachings.org/how-to-become-a-bahai/

[6] https://bahai-library.com/uhj_withdrawal_faith


[8] https://www.bic.org/sites/default/files/pdf/iran/thebahaiquestionrevisited_final_160839e.pdf

[9] Ibid

[10] For details see: https://news.bahai.org/story/966/

[11] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/review-into-christian-persecution-catalyst-for-action