Debates of the Senate (Hansard)

2nd Session, 40th Parliament,
Volume 146, Issue 82

Monday, December 14, 2009
The Honourable Noël A. Kinsella, Speaker

Iran

Motion to Support Democratic Aspirations of the Iranian People—Motion in Amendment—Debate Continued

Hon. Mobina S.B. Jaffer: Honourable senators, I rise to speak on this motion and I know that time is running out. However, Senator Grafstein will not be with us when we return. To respect his wishes, I will speak today on the motion on Iran.

Honourable senators, I am pleased to rise before this chamber today to participate in the debate on Senator Grafstein’s motion to support the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people. I specifically rise to support the amendments of Senator Di Nino that he has proposed to add, namely, that:

Canada condemns the use of discrimination, both religious and ethnic, as a means of suppressing the population of Iran.

In June of this year, the world was shocked by televised images of violent attacks on Iranian citizens protesting the outcome of the presidential elections. These attacks, the arbitrary arrests, allegations of torture and the “show” trials and death sentences that have followed are symptomatic of the widespread incidents of gross human rights violations perpetrated by the Iranian government against its own citizens.

For many years, I have represented Iranian refugees, especially women, who have been tortured and imprisoned in Iran. The suffering of these women is unimaginable. Sadly, honourable senators, this suffering still continues.

As described in disturbing detail in September 23, 2009, report of the Secretary-General to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, these human rights violations affect a cross-section of Iranian society, including women, labour union officials, human right activities, journalists, students, academics and ethnic and religious minorities.

Today, I will address the situation of one religions group, the Baha’i of Iran, whose rights have systematically been violated by the Iranian government since the inception of the Islamic revolution. As a young child in Uganda, my father often took me to a construction site where a Baha’i temple was being built. As the temple was being built, my father would describe the different aspects of the faith of the Baha’i. His description of the embracing by the Baha’i of all religions left me with a great love and respect for all faiths. I am also a great admirer of the Baha’i. As Ugandans, we are proud of the Baha’i temple in Uganda and we believe it is one of the best temples.

There is a lot of talking and I do not think this is appropriate.

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore: Order, please.

Senator Jaffer: It is still happening.

Some Hon. Senators: Order.

Senator Jaffer: Honourable senators, let me take a few moments to provide some background of the Baha’i faith. It originated in Iran, then Persia, in the 1840s. Central to the spiritual teachings of the Baha’i faith is the concept that there is only one God and that the major world religions have been established by divine educators who brought teachings commensurate with humanity’s stage of development.

The source and spiritual essence of all these religions is the same in the Baha’i view. Only the social teachings have changed in order to support the emergence of an ever-advancing civilization. Baha’is strive both individually and as communities, and with the guidance of their institutions, to understand and implement the spiritual and moral teachings in their own lives and communities, and to contribute to the common good.

The five million or so people comprising the Baha’i international community represent 2,112 ethnic and tribal groups who live in over 121,000 localities, 190 independent countries and 45 dependent territories and overseas departments.

Its membership, which cuts across all boundaries of class and race, governs itself through the establishment of local and national democratically elected bodies known as spiritual assemblies. Its world centre and the seat of its international governing council, known as the Universal House of Justice, is located in Haifa, as specified by the founder of the Baha’i faith, in what was then Palestine.

I have often visited this Haifa temple while working with Israeli women. This temple is not only a structure but is located in an area that exudes peace. I have often spent time in the gardens of the Haifa temple to find peace.

The Baha’i international community has an accredited consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council, ECOSOC, and with UNICEF. It is also affiliated with the United Nations Environment Program and the United Nations Department of Public Information.

It maintains offices to support its collaboration with the United Nations in New York and Geneva. Through its UN offices, the Baha’i International Community has released statements and participated in a series of UN world summits, which took place throughout the 1990s, culminating with the Millennium Forum, which was co-chaired by the principal representatives of the Baha’i international community.

Baha’i’s representatives have been active contributors to the UN reform process. They follow the work of the various UN commissions and UN Human Rights Council, providing a forum for dialogue by hosting topical side events among various other initiatives.

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The Baha’i community of Canada, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1998, elected its first National Spiritual Assembly in 1948. One year later, Canada became the first country in the world to incorporate the National Spiritual Assembly through an act of Parliament on April 30, 1949.

Today, the Baha’i community of Canada comprises approximately 30,000 members from backgrounds that are truly representative of Canada’s rich cultural and ethnic diversity. Canadian Baha’is live in every province and territory and are spread among 1,200 localities. Their economic and social backgrounds are as diverse as their cultural and religious heritage.

Over the years, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Canada has welcomed and responded to invitations from the Canadian government to offer its perspective on issues of provincial, national and international significance in discourse and social action related to such themes as violence against women, racism, sustainable development, climate, education and human rights education.

The Canadian Baha’i International Development Agency has collaborated with CIDA on primary health care, community radio and education projects in Africa, India and Central and South America. As they do in Canada, in whichever country the Baha’is reside, they are appreciated as a constructive force. I know that the work they look after really benefits all of us.

Why then, honourable senators, do we have a slow genocide of the Baha’i community in Iran through such means as arbitrary arrests; incitement of hatred in government-controlled media and from the pulpit; harassment of schoolchildren; denial of access to post-secondary education or to employment in the public sector; severe restrictions on employment in the private sector; the destruction of graveyards; denial of government pensions; and the discrimination in courts?

In Iran, these attacks against the Baha’is intensified in the last three years with the issuance of an official memorandum calling for the identification, surveillance and reporting on all Baha’is. This led to memos issued to 81 universities, stating that Baha’is should not be admitted and, if admitted, should be expelled; a memo to security forces listing 25 occupations that the Baha’is, as unclean persons, were barred from; and a 31-page document circulated in Shiraz listing the name of every Baha’i, their occupation and address, accompanied by letters from religious leaders calling on their fellow citizens to shun them and not to do business with the Baha’is.

The answer is found in part in the baseless charges brought against all seven members of the former group that coordinated the affairs of the Baha’i community in Iran. Arrested in March and May of 2008, and held ever since in the notorious Evin prison, these seven Baha’is — Fariba Kamalabadi,, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeid Rezaie Behrouz Tavakkoli, Vahid Tizfahm and Mahvash Sabet, who also served as the secretary — learned in late February, 2009, that they would be brought before Iran’s revolutionary court to face charges of espionage on behalf of Israel, insults to the sacredness of Islam, and propaganda against the regime.

These charges, which were completely unfounded, carry the death penalty. Honourable senators, we need to be there as a voice for these seven Iranians.

Iran is well aware that the location of the Baha’i world centre in Israel is the result of an historical event of its own making. Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i faith, was exiled at the behest of Iranian authorities from Iran to Iraq, to Constantinople, and eventually to Akka — the fearsome prison city in what was then Palestine.

Iran is also well aware that Baha’i teachings recognize the Prophet Muhammad as the manifestation of God, and his book as a holy book, as indeed Baha’is recognize all the founders of the world’s greatest religions; and they are called upon to consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and concord.

Finally, Iran knows that Baha’is are bound by the teachings of their faith to avoid partisan politics, to be obedient to their government, and to strive for the advancement of their society.

Honourable senators, I can vouch for the Baha’i’s commitment in what I have observed of what they have been doing in Israel and here in Canada.

The Baha’i leadership in Iran is guilty of none of the charges laid against them. Rather, their arrest, their continued detention in violation of Iran’s own laws, and their impending trial is the latest chapter in a deliberate campaign that the Iranian government has been waging for 30 years in an effort to eradicate the Baha’i community as a viable entity in Iran. It is a classic example of pure religious persecution, uncomplicated by ethnic, linguistic, political, economic or any other factors. Only their beliefs distinguish Baha’is from their fellow citizens — beliefs which the Baha’i teachings would forbid them from imposing on others.

I believe, in today’s world, all of us should be allowed to practice our religion. The freedom to hold beliefs of one’s choosing and to change them is central to human development. It makes possible the individual search for meaning, which is a distinguishing impulse of human conscience.

Freedom of religion or belief is protected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 18 which states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

It is hard for us who live in a society that respects freedom of religion or belief to imagine what it means to be in a religious minority in a society that does not. The consequences of membership in a religious minority are all too obvious to the Baha’is of Iran who have faced waves of persecution since its birth in the mid-1800s, a persecution that has become relentless since the inception of the Islamic revolution in 1979.

I have called what is happening against the Baha’is, whom I have represented for many years, a slow genocide of the Baha’i.

The Baha’is face tremendous persecution in Iran. In the face of the intensifying persecution, the Baha’is of Iran are intensifying their efforts to serve their society. For example, drawing on lessons they have learned about the equality of men and women, they are sharing their experience with their friends and neighbours and are working on projects together.

Knowing the necessity of literacy in a search for independent understanding, they are teaching disadvantaged children how to read. Being a diverse community, with believers from a wide range of ethnic groups and religious backgrounds, they have developed unity and are working with the larger community to overcome prejudice and promote unity.

Even so, these efforts attract further persecution. Three young Baha’is are serving four-year prison sentences in Shiraz for offering a literacy program to disadvantaged children living on the outskirts of the city. Although they had sought and received a permit for this activity and were exonerated of any wrongdoing in an official report, all efforts to have their sentences commuted have been fruitless.

The other youth, who were non-Baha’i and who were working with them, were given suspended sentences conditional on attending classes on Islam, during which their own faith is denigrated. Honourable senators, it is worth noting that the Muslim youth who were working with the Baha’is were released while the young Baha’is are facing prison sentences.

The Baha’i community in Iran has been denied access to the media and has been unable to respond to the systemic misrepresentation of their beliefs and conduct, the result of which has been widespread and unreasoning prejudice that permitted the Iranian government to act with impunity. However, this prejudice is starting to give way. Growing numbers of Iranians are calling upon their government to respect the rights of their fellow Baha’is.

Honourable senators, we should all join with them and ask the Iranian government to release the members of the former leadership, pending an open and fair trial; to commute the sentences of the three youth imprisoned in Shiraz; and to accord its Baha’i citizens the same rights and freedoms as are guaranteed all Iranians in its constitution and conform to international human rights standards.

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore: Honourable Senator Jaffer, your time is up.

Senator Jaffer: May I please have five more minutes?

Hon. Gerald J. Comeau (Deputy Leader of the Government): Five more minutes, fine.

Senator Jaffer: The intensifying persecution of the Baha’is of Iran reflects the deteriorating human rights’ situation in that country.

I urge all honourable senators to ask our government to be there for the Iranian people. I remind you that Canada was the first country in 1948 to recognize the Baha’i National Spiritual Assembly. We need to continue to be there, actively involved in protecting the Baha’is and all Iranian people.

Today, I urge us all to ask our government to protect the rights of all Iranians. That means human rights for the Baha’i in Iran, human rights for the Sunni Muslims in Iran, and human rights for Christians in Iran. Human rights for all Iranians need to be protected.

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Honourable senators, if there was ever a time that we needed to look at protecting the rights of Iranians, it is now. I will take the opportunity to acknowledge that Senator Grafstein has worked hard on issues of anti-Semitism in this house. I want him to know that, although he leaves us, he has left a legacy. I can assure him that, although I will never be able to do as good a job as he has done, I will be there to ensure that we in this country continue to enjoy the freedoms that we have enjoyed.

Senator Grafstein has taught me a lot about anti-Semitism, and I thank him for that. I will continue to work on this issue.

As the only Muslim senator in the Senate, I tell all honourable senators that when people speak on my faith and cause terrible abuses, they do not speak in my name.

 

 

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