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The newest and one of the oldest of the world’s major religions – the Baha’i Faith and Judaism – have a great deal in common. Both have a strong belief in the oneness of God; and both believe, as the Torah proclaims, that human beings all descend from one father. Baha’is revere Abraham, Moses and the teachings of Judaism, and many Baha’is come from Jewish backgrounds. The Holy Land in Israel houses the world centers of both Faiths.
And today, on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, Jews around the world join the chorus that calls for an end to the persecution of the Baha’is in the Middle East.
Many Middle-Eastern nations have attempted to outlaw or exterminate the progressive Baha’i teachings. In Egypt, the Baha’i Faith is illegal, and Baha’i children cannot attend public schools. Baha’is have been persecuted in many majority-Muslim countries, including Algeria, Iraq, Afghanistan under the Taliban and Indonesia, although in some places restrictions have eased in recent years.
But the conditions for the Baha’is in the Faith’s birthplace of Iran have worsened, and today many Iranian Baha’is endure imprisonment, torture and even state-sanctioned murder and execution for their beliefs. The Iranian government has banned the Baha’i Faith, defamed the Faith in state-sponsored media attacks, prohibited Baha’i students from education, arrested and imprisoned Baha’i leaders on false charges and, Amnesty International reports, has executed at least 202 Baha’is since the Iranian revolution. Elderly Baha’is and even Baha’i babies and children – all completely innocent of any crime — have been imprisoned by the regime.
Another Baha’i – Mr. Ataollah Rezvani – was murdered last week in Bandar Abbas, Iran. Mr. Rezvani was the latest Baha’i victim of a religiously-motivated hate crime, one of many instigated by senior local clerics who have attempted for the past few years to incite the population through incendiary sermons against the Baha’is. These hate crimes against Baha’is, which include assault, burning of homes and businesses, denial of employment and education and destruction of sacred sites – much like the hate crimes against the Jews in Nazi Germany in the 1930’s – go unpunished and even un-investigated by the authorities. This blatant government-sanctioned disregard for human rights has begun to focus the international and the interfaith community’s attention on one of the most egregious contemporary campaigns of religious extermination.
For the past five years seven Baha’i leaders, known as the Yaran, have been imprisoned under harsh conditions in Iran’s worst prisons. Although hundreds of thousands of Baha’is have been targeted for persecution by the order of the Iranian government’s secret 1991 memo, and many hundreds have been jailed, these five men and two women have captured the world’s attention and have become universally-recognized symbols of the Baha’i persecutions.
Jewish religious leaders have joined the worldwide chorus of condemnation of these genocidal practices, saying that Jews in particular can understand what such oppression really means. At a Los Angeles interfaith event called Belief Behind Bars one Jewish leader spoke passionately about the connection between the two Faiths and called for the freedom of the Baha’is in Iran. In his article “We Are All Baha’is” in The Jewish Journal, Rabbi Mark Diamond, the Executive Vice President of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, wrote this about his speech at the event:
Anyone who has studied the Baha’i religion understands its core teachings of world peace and perfect unity. Anyone who has met Baha’i followers appreciates their gentle demeanor and heartfelt commitment to harmony and reconciliation between individuals and nations. The Baha’i leaders I work with share my passion for interfaith discourse between people of diverse faiths and backgrounds. In a profound sense, we are all Baha’is.
When I took my turn at the podium, I expressed the Jewish community’s solidarity and support of the imprisoned Baha’i leaders. While we are here in Southern California, our hearts are 7,500 miles to the east in Tehran. Our words and actions strengthen and sustain these seven brave individuals during their lonely days and nights in prison.
As Jews, we bear witness to the tragic horrors of the Shoah and the vile anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial of Iran’s president. We of all peoples understand the grim implications of the Iranian government’s secret 1991 memorandum regarding “The Baha’i Question.” We recognize that an assault upon the Baha’i community is an assault upon all of us.
We are indeed our brother’s and sister’s keepers. When we light Shabbat and holiday candles, let’s remember the seven Baha’i leaders in our prayers. Let’s work together to bring these courageous freedom fighters from darkness to light.