Human Rights

Three high-level UN human rights experts condemn the destruction of a historic Bahá’í cemetery in Iran

In Brief: 
  • Three UN Special Rapporteurs issued a joint press release in September 2014 calling destruction of a Bahá’í cemetery in Shiraz “unacceptable.”
  • Iran’s Revolutionary Guards began digging on the site in April, to make way for a new cultrual and sports complex.
  • Despite an outcry from Bahá’ís and others inside and outside the country, the demolition was resumed in August 2014. Reports say human remains from 30-50 graves have been removed.

GENEVA — One month after Iran’s Revolutionary Guards resumed demolition of an historic Bahá’í cemetery in Shiraz, three high-level United Nations human rights experts issued a call to Iranian officials to do more to halt the destruction, saying the action is an “unacceptable” violation of freedom of religion.

In a joint news release issued on 4 September 2014, Heiner Bielefeldt, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, and Rita Izsák, the Special Rapporteur on minority issues, said they were “dismayed” at reports that demolition work had resumed in August.

“Cemeteries, like places of worship, are an essential part of how people exercise and manifest their right to freedom of religion or belief. Their significance goes beyond their physical presence,” said Dr. Bielefeldt.

“Attacks on cemeteries are unacceptable and are a deliberate violation of freedom of religion or belief,” he added. “The government of Iran must take urgent action.”

The site, moreover, has particular significance to the Iranian Bahá’í community. It is the resting place of a number of prominent Bahá’ís — including ten Bahá’í women whose cruel hanging in 1983 came to symbolize the government's deadly persecution of Bahá’ís.

Excavation of the cemetery resumed in August after an apparent hiatus of several months in the face of an international outcry that began in May, shortly after reports emerged that the Guards had began excavating at the cemetery in late April.

Those early reports indicated that, with little advance warning, the Guards had suddenly dug up an area 1.5 meters deep and 200 square meters in area, and that 40 or 50 trucks were lined up to remove the excavated earth.

The Guards acquired the land about three years ago from the government, which had confiscated the site from the Bahá’ís of Shiraz in 1983, at which time its grave markers were leveled and its main buildings destroyed.

Subsequent reports indicated that the Guards have also begun to remove human remains from the site. There are some 950 graves in the cemetery, and reports suggested at least 30 to 50 graves had been disturbed, with human remains taken from them and placed in an open canal.

The Guards have said they plans to build a new cultural and sports complex at the site. The plans reportedly include a library, mosque, restaurant, theatre, child care facility, and sports hall.

Attacks on Bahá’ís in Guards’ speech

In June, the Guards held a public celebration of their progress in clearing the site. In advance of that celebration, to which the media was invited, they used a heavy roller to compact the ground. A carpet was then laid over a number of graves and the commander of the Guards gave a speech attacking Bahá’ís and calling the Bahá’í Faith a “foul,” “perverse sect.”

According to IranWire, this same commander or another high-ranking official in the Revolutionary Guards of Fars Province subsequently stated, “We will use a vehement approach with those who teach about the perverse sect in this province.... Their religion, or sect, is not genuine.”

At the same time, Bahá’ís in the province have given voice to their deep anguish over the site’s destruction. In an open letter written to local authorities in May, for example, a 50-year-old Bahá’í woman spoke of facing decades of oppression, capped now by this latest attack on a place where the bodies of her father, mother, and sister — who were all killed by the government in the 1980s — had been laid to rest.

“Yesterday…the cemetery where the bodies of my beloved family were buried was dug up and the soil was loaded onto trucks and taken away, so that no trace of evidence would be left of the crimes and atrocities committed by you over the past thirty years,” she wrote.

“End this long-standing rancor and enmity,” she said. “We are your countrymen, your fellow citizens, your neighbors, your family, and your relatives. We work for the dissemination of love; we adore affection and kindliness; and believe we all have a right to the life which God has bestowed upon us.”

In the joint press release in September, Dr. Shaheed said “Bahá’ís have religious rites and practices for the disposal of the deceased in their own cemeteries and the government has the obligation not only to respect them but to protect them from destruction.”

Protection urged

Ms. Izsák urged the Iranian government to take substantive steps to protect religious minorities.

“The Bahá’ís have been subjected to persecution and acts of violence,” said Ms. Izsák. “The authorities must protect them from further discrimination and stigmatization.”

“Measures should be put in place to protect and maintain the cultural heritage of religious minorities, including burial grounds and other sites of religious significance,” she added.

Members of the Shiraz Bahá’í community have pleaded with local authorities to enforce a permanent halt in the construction, offering also a compromise in which the sports complex could be built on the site away from areas where Bahá’ís are buried, while the graveyard itself is turned into a green space. The Bahá’ís have been told, however, that local authorities have no control over the Revolutionary Guards, who acquired the land about three years ago.

Diane Ala’i, the Bahá’í International Community’s representative to the United Nations in Geneva, welcomed the statement of the three UN officials.

“We are grateful for the strong stand that these three independent human rights experts have taken on the situation in Shiraz,” said Ms. Ala’i.

“The statement by Dr. Bielefeld, Dr. Shaheed, and Ms. Izsák is a clear signal to Iran that these acts are completely unacceptable, and that it is the responsibility of the government to uphold and enforce its commitments to human rights law, regardless of who the perpetrators are.”

“The current government has made numerous promises to improve its human rights record but failed to take action. Words must now be followed by deeds,” said Ms. Ala’i.