United Nations

It's tragic that religious liberty has suddenly turned into something scary

NEW YORK -- Early in his career in Congress, Democrat Tony Hall of Ohio had his politics worked out, but he wasn't sure how to combine them with the convictions of his Christian faith.

Then he took an official research trip to Ethiopia during the great famines of the early 1980s and these two powerful forces in his life came crashing together.

"I saw 25 children die one morning. As I walked among these people, mothers were handing me their dead children, thinking that I was a doctor and that I could actually fix them, take care of them. I was stunned," said Hall.

"I came home from that experience -- seeing death. I had seen so many people die. I thought, this is a way that I can bring God into my work place and not have to preach."

About that time, Hall formed a friendship -- one rooted in decades of weekly "prayer partner" meetings -- with another member of Congress who was equally committed to defending human rights. Together, Hall and Republican Rep. Frank Wolf of Northern Virginia excelled as a bipartisan team focusing on poverty, hunger and religious freedom.

They're still working together, even though Wolf left the House of Representatives in 2014. He currently holds the Wilson Chair in Religious Freedom at Baylor University. Hall left Congress in 2002, when President George W. Bush asked him to serve for several years as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations on food and agriculture issues. Ambassador Hall has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times.

Both men agreed that it would be harder for this kind of bipartisan, faith-centered friendship to flourish today, in an era in which the levels of anger and distrust on display in Washington, D.C., have reached toxic levels.

To make matters worse, said Wolf, it has become harder to defend basic human rights when they are linked to faith, because "religious liberty" has turned into a dangerous term in public life, one consistently framed in quotation marks in mainstream news reports -- implying that it has become tainted.

Connecting Baha'i dots in Iran

Anyone who reads the newspaper Kayhan knows that Baha'i believers are part of a giant conspiracy against Iran that has, at one time or another, included England, Russia, Israel and the CIA.

Baha'is also embrace alcohol, pork, gambling and adultery.

Human rights activists are studying this new wave of hate for one reason -- the Islamic Republic of Iran runs Kayhan. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei picks the managing editor. So there's more to these headlines than ink and paper.

"When Iran has a new enemy, it never takes long for them to connect that enemy to us," said Kit Bigelow, external affairs director for the Baha'i faith in the United States. "It used to be Russian and Britain, then it was Israel and the Zionists. Now, it's the United States. ... We can see certain dots being connected right now in Iran, even though we can't say for sure that we can see cause and effect. It's foreboding."

Here are some of the dots the experts are connecting.

Iranian officials recently arrested 54 Baha'is and their supporters involved in a UNICEF community service project in Shiraz, even though the young people obtained a permission letter for their project from the local Islamic Council. Last week, 51 of them were released on bail, although they have not been formally charged with a crime.

The three young people still in jail "were not the leaders, in any sense of the word" and no one knows why they have been singled out, said Bigelow. Other arrests during the past year have followed this pattern -- mysterious arrests, demands for bail and no formal charges. Meanwhile, Iranian police also raided six Baha'i homes and collected computers, books, notebooks and other documents.

"We think this is part of a strategy to keep the Baha'i community off balance, to keep us on tenterhooks," said Bigelow.

But nothing alarmed Baha'is more than the disclosure this spring of a confidential 2005 letter sent to the Iranian Ministry of Information, the Revolutionary Guard and police. It said the "Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, had instructed the Command headquarters to identify persons who adhere to the Baha'i faith and monitor their activities," according to a statement by Asma Jahangir of Pakistan, Special Rapporteur on religious liberty for the United Nations. The letter asked the "recipients to, in a highly confidential manner, collect any and all information about members of the Baha'i faith."

Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman connected the dots and detected what he believes is a horrifying pattern.

"These actions ... are reminiscent of the steps taken against Jews in Europe and a dangerous step toward the institution of Nuremberg-type laws," said Foxman, a Holocaust survivor. "This clear attempt to step-up persecution of the Baha'i community in Iran sets a dangerous precedent" and has raised the historic persecution of Iran's largest religious minority "to the next level."

These strong words may provide little comfort, since Iranian leaders already claim the Baha'is are agents for Zionism.

Part of the problem is that the Baha'i faith, which proclaims the unity of all religions, also has unique ties to Islam and Iran. The faith began with a leader known as the Bab, who claimed a direct lineage from Muhammad. He predicted the coming of a new prophet, but was executed in 1850 in Tabriz.

Baha'is believe this new prophet -- the successor to Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad and others -- was Baha'ullah, who was born in 1817 in Tehran. He was persecuted and repeatedly banished to Baghdad, Constantinople and, finally, Palestine. He died in 1892 and his tomb, and the Bab's tomb, is in a shrine near the Baha'i headquarters in Haifa.

Thus, Iran insists that Baha'i believers are both apostates and heretics, Thus, the faith is a sect that does not deserve the recognition and rights that the Islamic republic grants to Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians.

"They believe that the Baha'i faith is not a valid, independent world religion in its own right," said Bigelow, who is a convert from Christianity. "And, of course, our holy shrine is located in what has become the modern state of Israel. So when Baha'is around the world, including thousands of Baha'is in Iran, send money to help support this shrine and our work they are sending money to Israel. You can imagine what the current leaders of Iran think of that."