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The Declaration of the Bab: Baha'i Holy Day Marred by Fresh Wave of Persecutions in Iran

05/23/2011 10:56 am ET | Updated Jul 23, 2011

In Shiraz, Persia during the night of May 22, 1844, a twenty-four-year old merchant, Siyyid 'Ali Muhammad, declared that He was a Messenger of God sent to initiate a new age for humankind. He took the title, the Bab, meaning the "Gate." On May 23, members of the Baha'i Faith celebrate the Declaration of the Bab, which inaugurated the Baha'i Dispensation.

The Bab declared Himself that night to a young seeker named Mulla Husayn who was anticipating the advent of and searching for the Promised One of Islam, the Qa'im. The Bab's ministry lasted for six years until he was martyred in the Persian city of Tabriz. The Bab foretold the coming of another Messenger of God Who would fulfill the prophetic expectations of all the world's religions and Whose teachings would lead to world civilization and world peace. Baha'is believe this Promised One of all humankind is Baha'u'llah.

This normally joyous Holy Day is marred this year by a fresh wave of persecutions against Baha'is in Iran (formerly Persia). Some 300,000 Baha'is live in Iran, making them the most numerous religious minority in the country. But the Baha'i Faith is not recognized by the Iranian constitution and government, and Baha'is are not allowed to organize or to practice their religion. They are subject to persecution, arbitrary arrest, imprisonment and even execution. Their rights to employment and education are severely limited.

In the past 48 hours about 30 Baha'is were arrested at their homes in a series of raids in the cities of Tehran, Karaj, Isfahan, and Shiraz. "All of the targets were homes of individuals closely involved with the operations of the Baha'i Institute for Higher Education," said Diane Ala'i, representative of the Baha'i International Community to the United Nations in Geneva.

The Baha'i Institute for Higher Education was founded in Iran in 1987 to provide young Baha'is the equivalent of a university education in the homes of people involved with the Institute. Baha'is are forbidden from attending universities in Iran.

"The Institute has been a remarkably creative -- and entirely non-violent -- response to the Iranian government's on-going effort to stifle the normal human development of the Baha'i community," said Ms. Ala'i.

"The Iranian authorities -- not content with debarring Baha'is from university solely on account of their religious beliefs -- are now cruelly seeking to shut down the community's efforts to provide its youth with higher education through alternative means."

This reporter heard last night from an Iranian American Baha'i, who had a phone call from a relative in Iran, that there has been a second wave of raids and arrests, but this is as of yet unconfirmed. It is unclear at this point if the initial arrests of 30 Baha'is are the same 30 people arrested as "spies for the United States" as announced by state television in Tehran. Baha'is are often charged with being spies for the United States or for Israel.

"We are calling upon governments and educational organizations throughout the world to register with the government of Iran their strong disapproval of its systematic, ongoing efforts to deny to young Baha'is their fundamental human right to access higher education, " said Ala'i.

Some 385 Baha'is have been arrested on various charges since 2004 -- not including the most recent arrests. 319 cases against Baha'is are still pending. The informal leadership of the Baha'is in Iran, known as the "Yaran" or "friends" were arrested three years ago and held without trial until they were sentenced to twenty years in prison on trumped up charges. 74 Baha'is are imprisoned in Iran.

About fifty Baha'i homes were demolished by heavy equipment in the remote village of Ivel last year. Baha'i cemeteries have been bulldozed and Baha'i Holy Places have been destroyed. The persecution of Iranian Baha'is continues despite the outcry of many international human rights organizations and governments.

UPDATE: Baha'i sources in Iran now put the total of people arrested at fourteen, although about thirty homes were raided.