Debates of the Senate (Hansard)

1st Session, 41st Parliament,
Volume 148, Issue 9

Tuesday, June 21, 2011
The Honourable Noël A. Kinsella, Speaker

Baha’i People in Iran

Inquiry—Debate Adjourned

Hon. Mobina S. B. Jaffer rose pursuant to notice of June 9, 2011:

That she will call the attention of the Senate to the deteriorating human rights situation of the Baha’i people in Iran.

She said: Honourable senators, I rise before you today to call the attention of the Senate to the deteriorating human rights situation of the Baha’is in Iran. I would like to begin by addressing the more general topic of the human rights situation in Iran and its relevance for Canada. Before I do that, I would like to recognize the work of my dear friend, Susanne Tamas, who is here in the gallery with us, along with Geoffrey Cameron. They are strong advocates of the Baha’i community of Canada.

Despite the difficult relationship between Canada and Iran, we are bound together by strong human ties. Canada is home to a growing Iranian diaspora and the family and friends of Iranian citizens. Indeed, we are well-wishers of Iran, a great nation with an ancient culture and much to offer the modern world. Canada, as a country that prides itself on our culture of rights and diversities, stands in solidarity with those who are working for the same values and goals in Iran.

While Iran remains an ongoing security concern because of its nuclear program, we must not divert attention from the severe and worsening human rights situation. As we know, real and lasting security rests on the pillars of human rights, democratic governance and the rule of law.

As former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated in 2005 the world “must advance the causes of security, development and human rights together, otherwise none will succeed.”

That is why the Parliament and Government of Canada have remained seized of the human rights situation in Iran for many years. We must not waver in our support of Iranian citizens’ efforts to bring about progressive change.

The Iranian government continues to prosecute a brutal campaign of oppression against its citizens. Last September, the UN catalogued the abuses perpetrated by Iran, including torture and cruelty, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment, public executions and executions of juvenile defenders, the use of stoning as a measure of execution, violation of women’s rights, violations of the rights of minorities, and restrictions on freedom of assembly and association and freedom of opinion and expression. Such brutality has become the hallmark of a government that pays little attention to the dignity of its own citizens. Iran is negligent of both its ancient traditions and its international obligations to uphold universal standards of human rights.

The human rights situation in Iran continues to worsen day by day. Last January, Human Rights Watch warned of a deepening human rights crisis. In April, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reported that human rights and religious freedom conditions in Iran have regressed to a point not seen since the early days of the Islamic revolution. The worsening human rights situation affects all Iranians, and time does not permit me to do justice to all those suffering at the hands of the authorities.

Some groups have been particularly affected, including women, journalists, human rights activists, ethnic minorities and religious minorities. Arbitrary arrest, lack of due process and torture are experienced all too frequently by Iranian citizens. A Canadian, Hamid Ghassemi-Shall, still sits on death row because of spurious charges.

The Baha’is in Iran: Who are they and what is their history?

Honourable senators, I would like to speak to you about one group in particular. The Baha’i community of Iran is the country’s largest non-Muslim religious minority and its treatment is a case study of the real intentions of the Iranian government with respect to its human rights obligations.

As honourable senators are all aware, I grew up in Uganda learning about the Baha’is. They were building a temple in Kampala. My father worked with them and he taught me the beliefs of the Baha’is. He often said to me that the beliefs of the Baha’is should be the beliefs of us all, and I agree.

The Baha’i faith is an independent, monotheistic, world religion based on the teachings of the 19th century prophet founder Baha’u’llah. Its central teachings include the recognition of the common divine source of all religions and the belief in the fundamental oneness of humanity. Baha’i teachings call for the elimination of all forms of prejudice and urge followers to work for the creation of a global society characterized by peace, unity and justice.

There are approximately five million Baha’is around the world in 218 countries and territories. Here in Canada, the Baha’i community was founded in 1898 and currently includes some 30,000 members. The Baha’i faith originated in Iran in the middle of the 19th century, and early Baha’is came from many social, ethnic and religious backgrounds. They faced severe persecution from the beginning, often spurred by a clerical elite threatened by the spread of post-Islamic religion.

The founder, Baha’u’llah, was exiled from Iran to Iraq, then to Turkey and then to Palestine, which was then under the Ottoman rule. Because Baha’u’llah passed away in Palestine, the Baha’i World Centre emerged in modern-day Israel. Today the international governing council of the Baha’i community is based in the city of Haifa.

I have often visited the Baha’i World Centre in Haifa, and to me the gardens of the centre there are truly a paradise on earth. The centre in Haifa truly represents Baha’i belief of oneness in humanity.

(1650)

Despite the persecution of the Baha’i community in the country of its birth, Iranian Baha’is were on the forefront of the efforts to bring progressive change to the country. They were involved in the pro-democracy and social reform movements at the turn of the century. They founded the first schools for girls and eradicated illiteracy among Baha’i young women in the 1970s. The community in Tehran founded a hospital that brought modern medicine to excluded religious minorities.

The global spread of the Baha’i faith accelerated in the mid-20th century, turning it gradually into the second most widespread world religion.

Around the world, Baha’is today are engaged in working for social progress. In their grassroots activity, they are dedicated to helping the social development of villages and neighbourhoods. Baha’is join with others to promote the spiritual and material advancement of their communities. Their approach to social change focuses on transforming communities rather than political agitation.

This is a principle that is important to understand with respect to the ongoing persecution of the Baha’is in Iran. This is a community that believes in the power of non-violence and positive action as a response to oppression. While claiming their rights through legal means in the court of public opinion, they have never resorted to force. Baha’is believe that the most reliable pathway to liberation is to openly serve their country side by side with other Iranians.

Honourable senators, I turn now to the persecution of Baha’is in Iran. The persecution faced by Baha’is in Iran today has few parallels in human history. This is a community of more than 300,000 people that for more than 30 years has been subject to an often explicit state policy focused on its destruction. The intensity of pressure felt by this religious minority is almost impossible for us, as Canadians, to imagine, yet it is our duty as senators, indeed as fellow human beings, to raise our voices in solidarity with their cause.

Baha’is face prosecution in Iran because a hardline clerical elite views their religion as illegitimate, and they are therefore considered to be apostates or opponents of Islam. This attitude toward Baha’is is spread by lies and misinformation channelled through state-controlled media. Baha’is are often falsely accused of being foreign agents working secretly against the nation. The result of such disinformation campaigns is widespread ignorance that perpetuates a culture of prejudice.

Since Iran’s 1979 revolution, the views of hardline clerics have become embedded in the law and structure of governance in the country, including the constitution, which does not recognize the Baha’is and limits their access to legal protection. The consequence has been an unyielding wave of persecution that has changed in form over time but has been consistent in intent to destroy all aspects of Baha’i community life and to exile religion into the silence of private belief.

Persecution began at the outset of the revolution. Around 200 Baha’is in positions of leadership were summarily executed or disappeared. Baha’i holy sites were razed to the ground, properties were confiscated, businesses closed, pensions denied, cemeteries desecrated. They were banned from public service, and access to secondary and higher education was denied. Even Baha’i marriages went unrecognized.

Canada opened its doors to thousands of Baha’i refugees during this time, when Iran actively tried to prevent Baha’is from leaving the country.

Honourable senators, I have been a refugee lawyer for over 30 years, and never in my experience have I known our country not to accept refugees who claim to be Baha’is, as we have done. As a refugee lawyer, all I had to show was that an Iranian was a practising Baha’i and my client received immediate acceptance to settle in Canada. This was as a result of well-documented evidence that the Baha’is are persecuted in Iran.

The global outcry against this brutality appeared to have an effect as the sensational forms of persecution gradually declined in the late 1980s, only to be replaced by a new phase of persecution in the form of social and economic pressure.

A 1991 confidential memorandum approved by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei stated clearly the position of the Islamic Republic toward the Baha’i community. The memorandum specifies that the Baha’is should be treated in such a way “that their progress and development are blocked.” It specifies that the Baha’is should be denied access to higher education, prevented from holding government jobs, and that their children should be sent to schools “with a strong religious ideology.”

In this environment of intensifying pressure, the Baha’i community has been compelled to develop innovative ways to meet basic needs. Among these responses is the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education, an educational initiative launched in 1987 to provide for the education of Baha’i young people who are deprived of access to higher education by official government policy. The New York Times called it “an elaborate act of self-preservation.”

Today, the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education operates through a blend of online instruction and small seminars and labs, with an affiliate global faculty that stretches around the world, including here in Canada. It offers 17 university-level programs across three faculties, and continues to develop and offer academic programs in sciences, social sciences and the arts.

I am proud to say that seven Canadian universities have recognized the quality of education provided by the Baha’i education institute and they have accepted dozens of graduates for advanced study here in Canada. Most of them took their master’s degrees and Ph.D.s back to Iran, where they joined the institute’s faculty and have continued to teach others.

Honourable senators, on May 21, Iranian authorities launched yet another attack on the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education, this time raiding more than 30 homes and arresting 16 people. Among those arrested were two graduates of Canadian universities. These are attacks not only on the students and the faculty of the Baha’i education institute, but on the cherished idea that education is the birthright of all.

This latest incident underlines the intention of the Iranian government to carry out its policy to block the well-being of the Baha’i community, because when they deny a people the means to educate their youth, they deny them a way of earning a livelihood and deny them a good life.

This attack follows a worrying trend over the past several years of increasing pressure. In 2004, there were four Baha’is in prison, whereas today there are 93 in jail, for no reason aside from their religion. Arbitrary arrests are used in an attempt to keep the community in a condition of uncertainty and fear.

In 2008, the authorities also jailed the ad hoc Baha’i leadership in Iran, seven individuals who formed a body called the Yaran. I have spoken to you before about these men and women, who have now been held in prison for more than three years. They face a sentence of 20 years imprisonment. Their lawyer, Shirin Ebadi, a well-known Nobel laureate, has insisted that there is not a shred of evidence to support the charges against them, which include the type of false accusations that Iran has used to vilify Baha’is for decades.

Notwithstanding repeated requests, neither the prisoners nor their attorneys have ever received official copies of the verdict or the ruling on appeal.

May I have five more minutes?

Hon. Senators: Agreed.

Senator Jaffer: Thank you.

While these seven individuals languish in prison, the Baha’i community remains deprived of its leadership.

Honourable senators, I have conveyed to you a situation of clear injustice and oppression, perpetrated against a peaceful people for no reason other than their religious beliefs. The Baha’i community conducts its affairs with transparency and honesty; it keeps no secret about its beliefs and intentions, with members who want nothing more than to practise their religion and serve their country.

We Canadians are privileged to live in a country where diversity is valued and where we enjoy freedom of religion and belief. I believe that we should all speak out where these same freedoms are denied elsewhere, giving hope to our brothers and sisters who live under constant state pressure, in the name of humanity.

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Honourable senators, all my life I have worked with Baha’is. Today I stand before you and I ask you to also stand up for the rights of Baha’is.

Honourable senators, Canada’s support for the Baha’is in Iran has been an example of how supporting freedom of religion and beliefs can play a role in our foreign policy. In view of our new emphasis on promoting religious freedom abroad, let us take new steps to call Iran to account for its unacceptable treatment of the Baha’is. Let us stand for the religious rights of Baha’is in Iran.

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore: Is there further debate?

Hon. Hugh Segal: I move the adjournment of the debate, honourable senators.

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore: It has been moved by the Honourable Senator Segal, seconded by the Honourable Senator Di Nino, that further debate in this matter be adjourned until the next sitting of the Senate.

Is it your pleasure, honourable senators, to adopt the motion?

Hon. A. Raynell Andreychuk: Honourable senators, I had asked for time for a question of the Honourable Senator Jaffer before the adjournment, if she will take a question.

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore: We will deal with the motion of Senator Segal later.

Senator Andreychuk: The honourable senator is indicating that there should be new steps taken to help the Baha’i in Iran. I am aware that in the last 40, maybe 50 years, every government in Canada has moved the agenda in the multilateral, bilateral and regional initiatives. What else is the honourable senator suggesting we do now that we have not done in the past, except what I think is the continual, consistent pressure that we have done as a country?

Senator Jaffer: Honourable senators, when the Throne Speech was presented to us, I was pleased that we were looking at opening up an office of religious freedom. The first thing that this office should look at is the situation of the Baha’is in Iran because I believe that they are in the worst condition possible. We have such closeness with their issues and their beliefs that it is the first issue we should look at. That is something that we have not done. We should promote their religious freedom through the office that we will set up.

(On motion of Senator Segal, debate adjourned.)

 

 

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