08/25/2010 10:54 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Was the Sentencing of Iranian Bahá'í Leaders the Result of Longstanding Religious Prejudice?

According to recent reports, including in the Huffington Post, Iran recently sentenced seven Bahá'í religious leaders to prison terms of 20 years each following a closed trial in June and convictions on baseless charges including espionage on behalf of Israel and propaganda activities against Islam. (See and for more.)

These harsh sentences are a blatant violation of Iran's obligations under international human rights law. In particular, Iran has violated its commitments, as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a binding treaty, to protect religious freedom, to guarantee fair trials for all Iranians regardless of their religion, and to ensure humane conditions of detention.

It is evident that Iran has sentenced these Bahá'í leaders to extraordinarily long prison terms for no reason other than their religious beliefs as Bahá'ís and because of a long history of prejudice against the Bahá'í Faith.

The Bahá'í Faith is an independent world religion whose over five million members today reside in virtually every country of the world. Bahá'ís come from diverse racial, ethnic, and cultural groups. Bahá'ís follow the teachings of two Prophets who were born in nineteenth-century Persia: Siyyid 'Ali-Muhammad, known as the Báb ("the Gate" in Arabic) (1819-1850), and Mirza Husayn-'Alí, known as Bahá'u'lláh ("the Glory of God" in Arabic) (1817-1892).

Bahá'ís believe that the primary mission of the Báb was to prepare for the coming of Bahá'u'lláh, to whom the Báb referred as "Him Whom God Shall Make Manifest." They believe that Bahá'u'lláh is the prophet promised in the scriptures of many religions whose teachings will help bring about an era of universal peace and justice.

In the mid-nineteenth century many Muslims who followed the "Twelver" school of the Shia branch of Islam -- the branch adhered to by the current government of Iran -- were expecting the return of the twelfth, "hidden" Imam, who was a highly revered religious figure. In May 1844, the Báb declared to Mulla Husayn-i-Bushrú'i, who became his first disciple, that he indeed was that Imam.

The Báb appointed seventeen other disciples. One of them was a woman known as Tahirih, who advocated the Báb's new teaching of the equality of women and men. Muslim clergy viewed the Báb's claims and teachings as a threat, and the authorities relentlessly tortured and persecuted the Bábís. The Báb spent the rest of his short life in prison, and was executed in Tabriz on July 9, 1850. (See Brent Poirier's Huffington Post piece for more.)

Bahá'u'lláh was originally a follower of the Báb and become a prominent leader of the Bábí community. In 1852 the authorities arrested him and locked him up in a foul prison in Tehran known as the "Black Pit." During his arduous months in that prison, it became known to Bahá'u'lláh through a vision that he was the future Prophet promised by the Báb to whom the Bábís should turn after the Báb's death.

The Persian authorities decided they had to put a stop to Bahá'u'lláh's growing influence, so in early 1853 they exiled him to Baghdad, Iraq. In April 1863 he declared his station of prophethood to the Bábí community, which most Bábís accepted. Followers of Bahá'u'lláh thereafter became known as Bahá'ís.

The Ottoman authorities then exiled Bahá'u'lláh several more times, eventually incarcerating him in one of the most loathsome prisons in the entire Ottoman Empire, 'Akka (Acre), an ancient prison-city in Palestine, now located in northern Israel. The kindness of the Bahá'ís in the face of persecution gradually won over the authorities, and they allowed Bahá'u'lláh to live the last years of his life at a house, known as Bahji, on the outskirts of 'Akka. For Bahá'ís Bahji is the holiest spot on earth because Bahá'u'lláh's remains are buried there in the Shrine of Bahá'u'lláh.

Before his passing, Bahá'u'lláh had directed that the remains of the Báb should be interred in the nearby city of Haifa, on the holy mountain of Mount Carmel, and that Mount Carmel should be the administrative center of his faith. Today, the Shrine of the Báb, which houses his precious remains, rises majestically on the slopes of Mount Carmel.

Bahá'u'lláh appointed his eldest son, 'Abdu'l-Bahá ("Servant of the Glory") (1844-1921) as his successor and gave him the authority to interpret his teachings. 'Abdu'l-Bahá traveled throughout the Western world, and spent nearly eight months in the United States in 1912, sharing Bahá'u'lláh's teachings in churches and synagogues and at interfaith and interracial gatherings. He became renowned for his services to the poor in Palestine and the British Government knighted him in recognition of his humanitarian work during the First World War. 'Abdu'l-Bahá appointed his grandson, Shoghi Effendi (1897-1957), as Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith. Since 1963 the Bahá'í Faith has been governed internationally by a nine-member elected body, the Universal House of Justice, whose seat is on Mount Carmel.

The scriptures of the Bahá'í Faith teach the fundamental unity of all the Prophets of God, including Abraham, Krishna, Moses, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, the Báb, and Bahá'u'lláh, all of whom Bahá'ís revere. These scriptures forbid any form of religious dissension or fanaticism. Bahá'u'lláh explained that each Prophet has renewed certain timeless spiritual teachings, such as loving our neighbor, while also bringing social laws that are particularly adapted to needs of that age.

Some of the new social laws brought by Bahá'u'lláh are the full equality and unity of all human beings; the unity of people of varied races and religions; the complete equality of women and men; the eradication of every form of prejudice; the universal right to education, with particular attention being paid to educating women and girls; the independent investigation of truth, without need for clergy; the elimination of extremes of wealth and poverty; the compatibility of science and religion; loyalty to one's government; personal nonviolence; and the need for a system of global governance.

This history, and these teachings, help explain, but can never justify, the long history of persecution of Bábís and Bahá'ís in Iran as well as the harsh prison sentences recently handed down to the Bahá'í leaders. The approximately 300,000 Bahá'ís living in Iran, constituting the largest religious minority in the country, have suffered renewed intense oppression after the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979. The Constitution denies the Bahá'ís recognition as a religious minority. Between 1978 and 1998 more than 200 Bahá'ís were killed, most having been executed. Thousands were imprisoned. The Iranian government has systematically deprived Bahá'ís of employment, pensions, and property. Bahá'í youth have been prevented from obtaining higher education in Iran pursuant to official government policy. These oppressions have become graver in the last few years.

Strict interpretations of Islam view Bahá'ís as "apostates" because of the Báb's claim to be the twelfth Imam and the belief of Bahá'ís that God has sent two prophets after Muhammad, whom many Muslims consider to be God's last and final prophet. Theologically, this makes them even more vulnerable to persecution than Christians or Jews, who are regarded as protected "People of the Book." Bahá'ís are viewed as Muslims who have turned away from the true faith, a crime punishable by death under predominant interpretations of Islamic Shari'a law.

Needless to say, many Iranian clerics see Bahá'u'lláh's abolition of clergy, his teaching of the full equality of women and men, and his prohibition of religious extremism as direct threats to their livelihoods and beliefs. They cite 'Abdu'l-Bahá's knighthood by the British Government in recognition of his charitable work as evidence that Bahá'ís are agents of "British imperialism," an obviously ridiculous charge. The location of the Bahá'í world center on Mount Carmel, in modern-day Israel, fuels accusations, such as those against the seven Bahá'í leaders, that Bahá'ís are "spies" for Israel. But these charges ignore the fact that the Bahá'í world center has been located there since long before the establishment of the State of Israel and as a direct result of orders of the Shah of Persia and the Ottoman authorities, which banished Bahá'u'lláh from Persia.

It is high time for Iran's government to investigate the truth about the Bahá'í Faith and overcome these religious prejudices that have led to such vehement persecution of Bahá'ís since 1844. It should follow the lead of many enlightened Iranian Muslims who have come to the defense of the Bahá'ís, many of whom are their friends and neighbors. And it is high time for the government to live up to its obligations under international law to protect the religious freedom of all Iranians, whether Bahá'í or not. Iran should immediately set aside the judgment against the seven Bahá'í leaders and release them without condition. They have committed no crime other than being Bahá'ís.