Revolutionary Guard Resumes Destruction of Baha’i Cemetery in Iran, while a bill passed by Congress and signed into law by the President earlier this month – known as the “Protect Cemeteries Act” – makes this type of cemetery desecration a sanctionable religious freedom violation.
The Guard began excavating the site in April 2014, but temporarily suspended its activity following an international outcry (Human Rights Watch 2014). The cemetery is the site of 950 Baha’i graves, including those of 10 Baha’i women who were hanged in 1983, the youngest of whom was 17 years old. In June, the Guard held a public celebration of its progress in clearing the site, which it plans to turn into a cultural and sports complex. Reports from Iran indicate that the Guard has now removed human remains from some 30 of the 50 graves in the cemetery and placed them into an open canal.
Cemetery desecration has been a common feature of the persecution of the Baha’i community in Iran, which, at 300,000 members, is the country’s largest non-Muslim religious minority. Over 40 Baha’i cemeteries have been attacked since 2005, with acemetery in Sanandaj, attacked and partly destroyed being vandalized and partially destroyed in December 2013 (HRANA 2013).
The Protect Cemeteries Act was sponsored by Congresswoman Grace Meng of Queens, New York, who introduced the bill after learning from her Jewish constituents about the desecration of cemeteries as a feature of religious persecution in other countries. The law adds cemetery desecration to the religious freedom violations listed in the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, an act that allows the U.S. to impose penalties on countries that abuse religious freedom.
“The President signing my bill into law makes it clear that that our society will not tolerate the desecration of cemeteries wherever they occur and that includes against the Baha’i community in Iran,” said U.S. Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY). “The destruction of graves in the city of Shiraz and the removal of human remains are outrageous. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard must be held accountable for their actions, and this new law will be a vital tool towards accomplishing that goal. I thank the Baha’is of the United States for raising awareness of the desecration of cemeteries in Iran, and for highlighting how the law I sponsored can help to stop it.”
Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, followers of the Baha’i Faith have been systematically persecuted through arbitrary arrest and detention, denial of access to higher education, dismissal from employment, non-recognition of marriages, and the desecration of holy places and cemeteries. Over 200 Baha’is have been killed in Iran since 1978, the majority by execution, and thousands more have been imprisoned (USCIRF Iran Report 2013).
This month, five Baha’is were arrested in Tehran, signaling a recent rise in detainments. Since June of this year, at least 14 Baha’is have been arrested and over 100 Baha’is remain imprisoned, an indicator of the persistence of systematic persecution of Iranian Baha’is by the government in spite of the election last year of President Rouhani, a self-proclaimed moderate promising to address the rights of all Iranian citizens (HRANA 2014).
House Resolution 109, currently pending in the House with 154 bipartisan cosponsors – including Congresswoman Meng – condemns the state-sponsored persecution of the Baha’i community of Iran and calls on the President and Secretary of State to impose sanctions on individual Iranian officials who are directly responsible for human rights violations, including against the Bahá’í community.