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Baha’i of Iran, a Brief History
Encyclopedia Iranica

The installation of Moḥammad Reżā Pahlavī as shah in the 1940s signaled no change in the legal status of Bahaism. Looser government authority in that decade allowed an increase in major mob attacks on Bahais, such as those at Ābāda in May of 1944, and at Šāhrūd in July-August of 1944. In 1946-50 the national Spiritual Assembly of the Bahais of Iran adopted a six-point plan for spreading Bahaism and for improving the status of women. For the first time, women were elected to Bahai assemblies in Iran (they had served on them in the West much before), and women’s adult education and literacy classes were set up (Shiraz Diary, no. 91, 15-31 May 1944, FO 371/40162 in Momen, The Bábí and Bahá’í Religions, pp. 479-80; “Report from Persia,” ed. and tr. M. Gail, Baháʾí World 10, Wilmette, Ill., 1949, pp. 35-48; Horace Holley, “International Survey of Current Bahāʾī Activities,” Baháʾí World 11, Wilmette, Ill., 1951, pp. 34-36).

In 1955, in a move which seems to have done as much for the appeasement of ʿolamāʾ as to divert the attention of the general populace from unpopular policies, including the forging of a US-British-sponsored military alliance (the Baghdad Pact, q.v.), the shah’s military destroyed the dome of the Bahai center in Tehran, Ayatollah Behbahānī (a pro-court clergyman, q.v.) sent congratulatory telegrams to the shah and to Ayatollah Borūjerdī the chief Shiʿite clergyman in Qom. The ʿolamāʾ and pro-clerical deputies in the docile parliament took the opportunity to voice support for the complete outlawing of the Bahai faith, the jailing of all avowed Bahais, and the sequestration of all Bahai property. During this campaign some Bahai shops and farms were damaged by mob attacks, and a number of Bahais were assaulted. The government ultimately gave up the move, but the campaign did strengthen the hand of the ʿolamāʾ with the government until the late 1950s (S. Akhavi, Religion and Politics in Contemporary Iran, Albany, N.Y., 1980, pp. 76-87).

In the 1950s Shoghi Effendi appointed a large number of Hands of the Cause, and constituted some of them as an International Bahai Council, in preparation for the election of the Universal House of Justice. In 1953 he launched a global campaign of peaceful proselytizing for Bahaism, the “Ten-year World Crusade (jehād),” which sought with some success to spread the religion even to remote areas and islands. Shoghi Effendi did not live to see the end of the project, dying in London in 1957. Because he died childless, and the actions of his eligible relatives had forced him to excommunicate them, he had found it impossible to appoint a Guardian to succeed him. In 1963 the International Bahai Council convened in London a global congress and the first Universal House of Justice was elected. It included five American members, two from Britain, and two Iranians. Almost all Bahais accepted its authority, though a small number followed Hand of the Cause Mason Remey, who declared himself the Guardian despite ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ’s stipulation of descent from Bahāʾ-Allāh. The Remey movement remained tiny. The Universal House of Justice was thereafter elected every five years by members of the world’s national Spiritual Assemblies. Its seat, like that of ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ and Shoghi Effendi Rabbānī, is in Haifa, now Israel, near the shrines of the Bāb and Bahāʾ-Allāh. After 1957 Bahaism became a mass movement in some parts of the Third World, in Africa, South Asia, and South America. Some of the first mass conversions occurred in Uganda, India, and Bolivia (P. Haney, “The Institution of the Hands of the Cause;” letters issued by the Hands of the Cause 1957-63; and M. Hofman, “International Survey of Current Bahāʾī Activities,” in Baháʾí World 13, Haifa, 1970, pp. 245-309, 333-94; B. Ashton, “The Most Great Jubilee” and “The Universal House of Justice,” Baháʾí World 14, Haifa, 1974, pp. 57-80, 425-43; Universal House of Justice, Wellspring of Guidance, Wilmette, Ill., 1969; V. Johnson, “An Historical Analysis of Critical Transformations in the Evolution of the Bahāʾī World Faith,” Ph.D. dissertation, Baylor University, 1974, pp. 330-90).

In the 1960s and early 1970s the lot of Bahais in Iran improved somewhat, though they still continued to labor under many legal and latent social disabilities. In 1964 Iran had 530 local Spiritual Assemblies. In 1975 Bahais feared for their safety when Moḥammad-Reżā Shah insisted that all Iranians join his Rastāīz party. The national Spiritual Assembly of the Bahais of Iran informed the shah that although Bahais were law-abiding citizens, they could not join his party, given the non-political nature of Bahaism. In the 1970s Bahais were often watched and harassed by the shah’s security apparatus, SAVAK, and the Bahai Publishing Trust in Tehran was forced to offset rather than print books and to limit the number of books it circulated in order to avoid sanctions.

A number of Bahais, such as Ḥabīb Ṯābet, Hožabr Yazdānī, and Abd-al-Karīm Ayādī, grew extremely rich and powerful under the Pahlavīs, and helped form a general public impression of Bahais as a bourgeois group supportive of the unpopular policies of the regime and close to the shah or the royal family. This rekindled dormant prejudices and provoked anger and resentment towards the Bahai community as a whole but the Babi and Bahai religions were mass movements, encompassing villagers and peasants, artisans and tradesman, and working class people in the large cities, who formed the vast majority of the country’s three to four hundred thousand Bahais (P. Smith, “A Note on Bābī and Bahāʾī Numbers in Iran,” Iranian Studies 15, 2-3, 1984, pp. 295-301) and who had no desire for or interest in siding with unpopular policies and alienating the majority. That these ordinary Bahais were forbidden by their national Spiritual Assembly from joining any political party, and even from voting (unlike their coreligionists in the West, who may vote if they can do so without joining a party) made their political preferences a private matter which, in normal circumstances, should have been viewed as irrelevant to the political process.

Since its inception in 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran has, despite denials and explanations, demonstrated every intention of destroying the Bahai community altogether. It has gradually and systematically confiscated all Bahai properties and investment companies, fired Bahai civil servants, dissolved all Bahai national and local Spiritual Assemblies, and executed nearly two hundred of the country’s most active and prominent Bahais. It has harassed, detained, and persecuted many others on various pretexts, ranging from violation of Islamic laws, to conspiracy with and spying for international Zionism and imperialism. Since the Islamic Republic considers the performance of Bahai marriage ceremonies heretical and illegitimate, local Spiritual Assembly members who performed them have been tried on charges of promoting prostitution. Bahais who went on visitation to shrines in Israel or sent monetary contributions to the Bahai world center in Haifa came under suspicion of supporting Zionism or spying for it, even though the establishment of ʿAkkā and Haifa as Bahai centers dated from the nineteenth century, long before the founding of Israel. Hundreds of recantations have appeared in newspapers, the circumstances of their procurement being highly suspicious. The parliament has made it illegal for parents to pass Bahaism on to their children, has refused admittance of Bahai children to schools, and denies Bahais ration cards. The government’s confiscation of membership records at the National Bahai Center in Tehran allows it to identify Bahais throughout the country (Human Rights Commission of the Federation of Protestant Churches in Switzerland, “Declaration on the State of Religious Minorities in Iran,” World Order 13, no. 4, 1979, pp. 15-20; Amnesty International U.S.A., “Under Penalty of Death: In Iran a Campaign of Terror against Bahāʾis,” Matchbox, October, 1983, p. 11).

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