Iran's Religious Minority Speaks Out On Elections

Members of the Baha'i faith, Iran's largest religious minority, have long been discriminated against and persecuted by the Islamic Republic of Iran government. Farhad Sabetan, an official within the Baha'i faith community, offers a reaction to the recent elections.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now we go to Farhad Sabetan, spokesman for the Baha'i International Community. The Baha'is are considered Iran's second largest religious minority after Sunni Muslims. But the Iranian government does not recognize the religion and many say Ahmadinejad has continued to prosecute its members, which raises questions about why official vote totals show larger margins for Ahmadinejad in this election than in his first election four years ago. Mr. Sabetan is with us now. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. FARHAD SABETAN (Spokesman, Baha'i International Community): Thank you for having me. It's wonderful to be here.

MARTIN: What is the significance of religion in Iranian politics? It's my understanding that Sunnis consider themselves to be a religious minority even though they are Muslim. And after that, the Baha'is are the second largest religious minority in Iran. But what is the significance of that?

Mr. SABETAN: Well, as you know, the Iranian Revolution was started based on a religious movement. You know, Ayatollah Khamenei created an Islamic Republic. So religion and politics is very much enmeshed and mixed with Iranian politics, even though the Iranians right now, especially the reformers, are very much advocating separation of church and state. They want to keep religion separate from politics.

MARTIN: And what is the status of Baha'is in Iran? Do they enjoy the full civil rights? Can they vote? Can they participate in politics?

Mr. SABETAN: Yes, the Baha'is are allowed to vote, but unfortunately they are deprived of many civil, economic, and social rights. The Baha'i faith is not mentioned in the Iranian Constitution as a religion, it's not recognized. And as such, the Baha'is have been executed. In the beginning of the revolution more than 200 Baha'is have been killed. Hundreds of Baha'is have been put in prison. Thousands of Baha'is have their possessions, their homes, and properties. Thousands of students have been deprived of the right to higher education and even Baha'i cemeteries have not been immune from the prosecution by the Iranian government.

MARTIN: But why is that? I mean Christianity and Judaism are mentioned in the Iranian Constitution, why are - the fact that the Baha'i is not being recognized, why? Is that because they are considered apostates or - why?

Mr. SABETAN: Just, the Iranian government essentially because the politics and religion is mixed, they believe that after Islam, there should be no other religion. Therefore they do not recognize any religion after Islam.

MARTIN: It's my understanding that religiously and culturally that Baha'is don't announce - they can vote and do vote but don't announce their political preferences publicly. But over the course of the campaign did any of the candidates specifically champion civil rights and human rights for the Baha'i community?

Mr. SABETAN: Yes. Mr. Karroubi, the former speaker of the parliament did specifically mention that. And I'm quoting, he says, "I am the president of the Baha'is, I'm the president of the Darvishes, and Sunnis." And he named a few minorities, but he specifically mentioned, I am their president. Now, that was quite unprecedented in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran for a person who wears the robe of priesthood, essentially coming and saying that.

MARTIN: And how do…

Mr. SABETAN: Clergy.

MARTIN: He is a clergyman, I see. And how do you connect those - kind of the larger narrative with the specific concerns of the Baha'i community?

Mr. SABETAN: The Baha'is are considered by the Islamic Republic to be the most despised. The reference is the Baha'is are the misguided sect, the spies of Israel and so on. And essentially the Iranian government is using the Baha'is as being the - you know, the cause of the problem simply because they don't recognize it. And as such, if they do recognize the rights of the Baha'is, then they must recognize the rights of the Sunnis, who is essentially brothers in religion, Zoroastrians, Christians, Jews, Kurds, Darvishes, Baluchis and the rest of them. So, that's why the - observing the rights of the Baha'is is of such an importance.

MARTIN: Well, the main opposition candidate who is getting the most attention Mir-Hossein Mousavi is not the candidate who is championing human rights for religious minorities or expanded rights for religious minorities, as I understand it. Is that correct?

Mr. SABETAN: Well, we haven't heard him directly addressing Baha'is but he has mentioned the importance of the rule of law and the importance of human rights.

MARTIN: What have been the relationship between the current president, Ahmadinejad, and the Baha'i community?

Mr. SABETAN: None. President Ahmadinejad essentially avoids any question that he is asked about the Baha'is. And the human rights records of Mr. Ahmadinejad has not been very forthcoming unfortunately, even though the Iranian Constitution guarantees freedom of belief. Therefore it is quite surprising to us that the Iranian government is violating its own law.

MARTIN: Farhad Sabetan is the spokesman for the Baha'i International Community. He joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. SABETAN: Thank you for having me.

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