When Pooya Dayanim, a Los Angeles-based Iranian-Jewish activist, went public a decade ago with the case of 13 Jews jailed in Iran on trumped-up charges of spying for Israel, he based his strategy on that of the Baha’is, a religious minority long persecuted by the Iranian government.
“When I decided to take the Shiraz 13 affair public, I modeled it after their efforts,” Dayanim said, referring to the Baha’i community. “They were very good at their public diplomacy.”
Now, the Baha’i community is working to gain the release of seven of its leaders in Tehran, who are facing down their own charges of spying for Israel. The seven — including a 45-year-old mother of three and a 37-year-old optometrist — have been imprisoned since last spring. In addition to espionage, they stand accused of insulting religious sanctities and of spreading propaganda against the Islamic Republic.
According to the Islamic Republic News Agency, Iran’s official media outlet, a trial is imminent. Few outside Iran give credence to the espionage charges. But the case does open a window onto the Baha’i faith’s ties to Israel — a historic connection long exploited by the Iranian government.
“Baha’is are often accused of being an agent of Israel, because the Baha’i World Centre happens to be in Israel,” said Bani Dugal, the Baha’i International Community’s principal representative to the United Nations. “It’s an inflammatory accusation to make in Iran, because of the general sentiments regarding Israel.”
Dugal said that the Baha’i community categorically denies any of the charges leveled against the seven leaders, who dealt with administrative matters for Iran’s community of more than 300,000 Baha’is. “They are absolutely innocent,” she said.
An official from Iran’s permanent mission to the United Nations did not return a call seeking comment. Indeed, the center of the Baha’i faith — it claims six million adherents worldwide and preaches the oneness of humanity as its guiding philosophy — is located in Haifa, Israel. But, as Dugal noted, the Baha’i connection to the Holy Land predates the formation of the State of Israel by more than half a century.
The Baha’i connection to Israel dates back to the late 19th century. The faith, founded in the mid-1800s by its prophet, Baha’u’llah, was perceived as a threat by Islamic clerics, who viewed Muhammad as the last in the line of prophets. As a result, Baha’u’llah was banished from Iran in the 1860s and later went to Turkey. The Ottoman Turks then sent the religious leader to the prison city of Akka, in what was then Ottoman-ruled Palestine.
Baha’u’llah died in 1892 and is buried near what is now the Israeli city of Acre (also known as Akko). Before his death, he declared that the faith’s world center would be established atop Mount Carmel in Haifa. It is there that the remains of Baha’u’llah’s predecessor, who is known as the Bab, are interred. Currently, between 600 and 700 Baha’is who staff the world headquarters actually live in Israel, according to Dugal.
For many years, Baha’is have faced systemic discrimination in Iran. Unlike other religious minorities, including Jews, the Iranian government does not officially recognize them. They are barred from seeking higher education, and have been expelled from government jobs because of their faith. “The Baha’is are doubly oppressed versus other religious minorities, and are also oppressed as a political group,” said Hooshang Amirahmadi, president of the American Iranian Council and a professor of international development at Rutgers University.
While the persecution of Baha’is in Iran is not a new phenomenon, this latest episode raises the question of why such charges are being leveled at this particular moment.
Israeli-Iranian relations expert Trita Parsi, who wrote the 2007 book “Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the U.S.,” said in a phone interview that historically, when Iran was poised for a possible easing of relations in the West, certain elements within Iranian society had sought to create an uproar.
“We’ve seen a pattern in the past that when Iran is in a position to open itself up to the West,” Parsi said, “elements inside Iran who are benefiting from having Iran as closed and isolated as possible have created incidents like these, knowing it will cause international outrage and poison the atmosphere.”
Indeed, Parsi said, there was speculation in the late 1990s that a similar phenomenon was at work when the group of Jewish prisoners known as the Shiraz 13 — all of them were eventually released — was charged with spying for Israel.
The Baha’i connection to the Jewish faith extends beyond the historic fact that the Baha’i headquarters are based in Israel. In fact, a significant number of Iranian Baha’is were converts from Judaism.
According to Amin Banani, emeritus professor of Persian history and literature at the University of California, Los Angeles, Iranian Jews began to convert to the Baha’i faith — which has no clergy — in the final two decades of the 19th century. A number of the earliest Jews to embrace the new faith were physicians and prominent community members. In the cities of Kashan and Hamadan (Hamadan is the city where the tombs of the biblical Esther and Mordechai are traditionally said to be located), even a couple of rabbis embraced the Baha’i faith, which was influential in the broader Jewish community of the time.
According to Banani, part of the reason for the Jews’ conversion was that a number of Baha’i scholars were well versed in the Bible, and could therefore speak with Jews in terms of their own Scriptures.
“Those who think that Jews converted in order to escape mistreatment,” he added, “well, they got themselves into a worse situation.”