The document details religious persecution and discrimination in countries around the world. At a press briefing, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talked about the importance of religious freedom:
“Religious freedom is not just about religion. It’s not just about the right of Roman Catholics to organize a mass, or Muslims to hold a religious funeral, or Bahá’ís to meet in each other’s homes for prayer, or Jews to celebrate High Holy Days together—as important as those rituals are. Religious freedom is also about the right of people to think what they want, say what they think, and come together in fellowship without the state looking over their shoulder.”
Suzan Johnson Cook, ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, spoke about a troubling trend in Iran of authorities making arrests based solely on religious beliefs.
“The government continues to detain over 100 Bahá’í,” Johnson Cook said, “including the seven Bahá’í leaders whose sentences for espionage for Israel, insulting religious sanctities, and propaganda against the system have been re-extended to the original 20-year penalty.”
In 2011, at least 60 Bahá’ís were arbitrarily arrested. Some were later released after paying a large fine or posting a high bail. By the end of the year, at least 95 Bahá’ís were in jail and 416 Bahá’í cases were still active, the report stated, citing human rights groups.
Meanwhile, at least 30 Bahá’ís were barred or expelled from universities. In May 2011, the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), created to give Bahá’ís in Iran an alternative way to earn a college degree, was reportedly declared illegal, the report stated. Raids resulted in dozens of arrests.
The State Department report catalogs the injustices committed against the Bahá’í community in Iran, which numbers between 300,000 and 350,000 people. Bahá’ís are banned from the social pension system, barred from leadership positions in the government and military, denied compensation for injury or crimes committed against them, refused the right to inherit property, and prohibited from officially assembling, the report stated. Their marriages and divorces are not officially recognized.
Acts of arson were reported throughout the year targeting Bahá’ís in several cities, according to the report. In some cases, letters sent to the owners of the burned businesses warned that Bahá’ís should not befriend Muslims. Also, Bahá’í children were reportedly harassed in school and subjected to Islamic indoctrination, the report stated.
Reception focuses on Middle East
The release of the International Religious Freedom Report followed a July 19 reception on Capitol Hill that drew attention to the plight of religious minorities in the Middle East.
The Bahá’ís of the United States joined 15 other nonprofit organizations and religious associations representing minorities throughout the Middle East, such as the Coptic Christians of Egypt and Assyrians and Yezidis of Iraq. The groups shared with congressional staffers and members of the public the tenets of their faiths and their histories of religious persecution in the Middle East.
Katrina Lantos Swett, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, made a point of addressing some specific abuses faced by these minority groups and those responsible for perpetrating them.
“Since 1979, Iranian authorities have murdered more than 200 Bahá’ís while removing 10,000 from government and university jobs,” Lantos Swett said. “For the first time since the early years of the Khomeini revolution, more than 100 Bahá’ís are being held in prison solely because of their religious beliefs, including seven of its leaders and several Bahá’í educators.”
She added: “For anybody who knows the Bahá’í community, it is such a source of pain to imagine that this incredibly wonderful and peaceful religion is being targeted in this way.”
Lantos Swett also articulated the course of action that the United States should take in response to this persecution.
“For Iran, where the problem is religious repression through the dictates of specific Iranian officials, we advocate that the United States continue to identify these officials—including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad—and impose asset freezes and travel bans on them, while demanding the release of all prisoners of conscience,” she said.
The event, co-hosted by the International Religious Freedom Caucus, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission and U.S. Reps. Brad Sherman, Trent Franks, Heath Shuler and Gus Bilirakis, had the dual purpose of promoting a stronger cultural awareness of the traditions and practices of these minorities as well as bringing to light the challenges they face.
“We must hold Middle Eastern governments accountable, especially in the aftermath of the Arab Spring,” Bilirakis said.