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The Bahā'ī Faith is an independent religion founded in Iran in the nineteenth century by Mīrzā Ḥusayn ʿAli Nūrī, whose religious appellation was Bahā' Allāh (Arabic for glory of God). The word Bahā'ī signifies a follower of Bahā' Allāh.

During the early 1800s there was a messianic expectation among Shi'ite Muslims that the Twelfth Imam, a descendant of the prophet Muhammed, would return to renew the religion of Islam and establish a just society. This belief was central to the teachings of the Shaykhī sect, named after Sheik Ahmad-i-Ahsā'ī.

On May 22, 1844, Mīrzā ʿAli Muhammad announced that he was the promised Twelfth Imam and took the name of the Bāb (Arabic for gate), indicating that he was the forerunner of yet another divine messenger to appear imminently. The Bāb's message spread throughout Persia (now Iran) and provoked the ire of powerful Shi'ite clergy. These clerics convinced government officials that the Bāb's rapidly growing influence posed a threat to ruling authorities. In 1848 the Bāb was arrested, beaten, imprisoned, and tried before the Muslim clerics of Tabriz. On July 9, 1850, the Bāb was executed by a firing squad.

After the Bāb's execution two followers of the Bāb attempted to kill the Shah of Persia, only confirming the Shah's fears of rebellion. This act led to the mass imprisonment of thousands of the Bāb's followers over the next few years. Bahā' Allāh was among those imprisoned for being a Bābī even though evidence demonstrated his innocence. After several months Bahā' Allāh was released and banished from Iran. He traveled to Baghdad, where he announced in 1863 that he was the messenger of God about whom the Bāb had spoken. Persian officials, concerned about the flow of pilgrims and foreign dignitaries seeking an audience with Bahā' Allāh, requested that Turkish officials move Bahā' Allāh further away from Persian territory. Bahā' Allāh was moved from Baghdad to Constantinople, then to Adrianople in an unsuccessful attempt to diminish his influence. Finally in 1868 Bahā' Allāh was banished to the distant prison city of ʿAkká (Acco, Acre), Palestine.

Before Bahā' Allāh died on May 29, 1892, his teachings spread from Persia and the Ottoman Empire to the Caucasus, Turkistan, India, Burma, Egypt, and the Sudan. ʿAbd al-Bahā, Bahā' Allāh's son, assumed leadership of the Bahā'ī community after his father's death and embarked on several journeys around the world, spreading the religion to regions of Africa, Europe, and America. When ʿAbd al-Bahā died, his will designated his eldest grandson, Shoghi Effendi Rabbanī, as the new leader of the community. Shoghi Effendi continued to expand the Bahā'ī community and build up the administrative structures of the Bahā'ī Faith. By the time of his death in 1957, the foundation had been laid for the first international election of a governing body called the Universal House of Justice. The Universal House of Justice, located in Haifa, Israel, guides the administrative affairs of the Bahā'ī community.

In just over 150 years the Bahā'ī Faith has become the second-most geographically widespread religion in the world. It embraces people from all economic classes and more than two thousand ethnic, racial, and tribal groups. In 2003 there were approximately five million Bahā'īs in more than two hundred countries and territories worldwide.

A central tenet of the Bahā'ī Faith is unity. Bahā'īs believe that there is only one unknowable God who has revealed himself to humanity through a series of messengers, including Moses, Zoroaster, Buddha, Krishna, Jesus, Muhammad, the Bāb, and Bahā' Allāh. Bahā'īs believe in the oneness of humanity, the unity of religious truth, the harmony of science and religion, the equality of women and men, independent investigation of truth, the elimination of all forms of prejudice, and a spiritual solution to extremes of wealth and poverty.

Persecution of the Bahā'īs in Iran

Since the founding of their religion the Bahā'īs of Iran have suffered torture, imprisonment, mob violence, and execution despite Bahā'ī beliefs of obedience to government and tolerance. Some twenty thousand Bahā'īs perished in the face of opposition from Islamic religious authorities during the nineteenth century. Persecutions continued intermittently throughout the twentieth century until the Islamic revolution in 1979, when clerics seized control of the government and embarked on a systematic campaign to eradicate the Iranian Bahā'ī community.

Between 1978 and 1998 the Iranian government executed more than two hundred Bahā'īs. The majority of these Bahā'īs were members of the community's democratically elected governing councils. During the 1980s hundreds of Bahā'īs were imprisoned and tens of thousands were deprived of jobs, pensions, businesses, and educational opportunities solely because of their religious beliefs.

International Responses

In response to intense international pressure in the late 1980s, including a series of country-specific United Nations (UN) resolutions, the Iranian government began to reduce the rate of executions and number of Bahā'īs held in prison. However, despite the apparent abatement of persecution in the late twentieth century, evidence revealed that the Islamic Republic of Iran continued its campaign to marginalize and eliminate the 300,000-member Bahā'ī community. Bahā'īs were arrested and released without documentation to confirm their freed status. Suspended sentences were used to threaten individuals who continued to participate in Bahā'ī activities. These practices were calculated to extinguish the life of the community without drawing the attention and ire of the international community.

Evidence of the government's altered tactics emerged in early 1993 with the discovery of a confidential government policy memorandum regarding the Bahā'ī question. Drafted by the Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council and signed by former president Ali Khamenei, the document described the government's objective: to ensure that the "progress and development" of the Bahā'ī community remain "blocked." The memorandum declared that all Bahā'īs should be expelled from universities and prevented from obtaining positions of influence and employment. The memorandum further suggested that Bahā'ī youth should be sent to Islamic schools with "a strong and imposing [Islamic] religious ideology" and must be expelled from schools and universities if they identified themselves as Bahā'īs. It also discussed plans for reaching beyond the borders of Iran "to confront and destroy their [Bahā'ī] cultural roots outside the country."

Twenty-First Century Developments

International efforts to focus on Iran's human rights record faltered in April 2002. Iranian officials were able to convince other nations that the previous seventeen resolutions adopted by the UN Commission on Human Rights were not helpful in advancing human rights in Iran and other means would prove more effective in improving the status of Bahā'īs, and other groups, in that country.

After the Commission on Human Rights suspended its monitoring of Iran, arrests and short-term detentions of Bahā'īs increased. Bahā'ī teachers and students were constantly watched and harassed. Instances of confiscation increased, while attempts to obtain redress from the courts failed. The Bahā'ī community constitutes Iran's largest non-Muslim religious minority, yet it remains unrecognized by Iran's constitution.

Thousands of newspaper articles about the situation of the Bahā'īs in Iran have appeared around the world. Prominent international organizations, including the European Parliament and several national legislatures, have passed resolutions expressing serious concern for their situation.

SEE ALSO Iran; Religious Groups


Bahā'ī International Community (1994). The Bahā'īs: A Profile of the Bahā'ī Faith and Its Worldwide Community. New York: Author.

Bahā'ī International Community (1999). The Bahā'ī Question: Iran's Secret Blueprint for the Destruction of a Religious Community. New York: Author.

U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). "The Annual Report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom." May 2003.

U.S. Department of State Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. "The Fifth Annual Report on International Religious Freedom." December 18, 2003.

Kit Bigelow
Jerry K. Prince

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