The tide of persecution in Iran is rising. In a fresh wave of attacks against the Bahá'í community - Iran's largest religious minority - three women were arrested on spurious charges of activity against national security following terrifying raids on 16 homes in the city of Rasht. In Semnan, around 10 Bahá'í-owned shops were sealed up by authorities. Business licences were cancelled. Such tactics are not random; they are moves in an ongoing campaign to impoverish Iranian Bahá'ís and make their lives untenable.
These abuses underline the recent statement of Dr Heiner Bielefeldt, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, that Iran's persecution of the Bahá'ís is among the most "extreme manifestations of religious intolerance and persecution" in the world today.
Experience shows that Tehran is shrewd, vindictive, and dishonest enough, to ramp-up persecution while the world's attention is diverted. Syria and the nuclear question must not push Iran's human rights tragedy off the agenda.
Oppression in Iran is widespread; women's activists, political activists, Kurds, Sunnis, others whose views are not shared by the state, and even the lawyers who defend them, suffer at the hands of the government's security and legal apparatus. The recent sentencing to death for apostasy of Youcef Nardakhani, a Christian pastor, on the basis of his Muslim ancestry, is a stark example of the contempt with which the government holds the rights of its people. The rank hypocrisy of President Ahmadinejad's recent assertion of Iran's "ethics, humanity, solidarity and justice" on the world stage is plain to see.
For the Bahá'ís - a community comprising adherents from all areas and strata of Iranian society - new and mounting afflictions are being endured. Seven Bahá'í educators, who were teaching young Bahá'ís denied access to universities as a matter of policy, were sentenced in September to jail terms of four or five years apiece. The charge - in effect, that they threatened state security by offering education in the sciences and arts - is patently absurd. It cannot be seen as anything other than a blatant act of religious discrimination and a calculated manoeuvre to make the community's existence unviable. Iran's prohibition on the attendance of foreign diplomats at the trial, and its refusal to provide written documentation of the verdict, betrays only its own guilt.
Little wonder, then, that on 3 November, the UN Human Rights Committee criticized Iran's non-compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the country is a state party. An Iranian delegation protested its innocence, claiming that, "no Iranian citizen enjoys priority over others due to his/her race, religion or particular language."
No one should be fooled by Iran's protestations. Since Iran's military and security agencies were instructed to monitor the Bahá'í community in 2005, there has been a marked rise in arrests and persecution. In 2004 four Bahá'ís were imprisoned. Since then, 500 have been arrested. More than a hundred Bahá'ís are currently behind bars. This includes the community's national leadership, found guilty of crimes their lawyer, Nobel laureate Dr Shirin Ebadi, said were without evidence. Raids, arrests, confiscation of property, the imposition of arbitrary and exorbitant bail costs, denial of access to education, and desecration of graves: these violations have escalated to desperate levels.
And the government has gone further. Recently in Sanandaj, the authorities attempted to persuade Bahá'ís to undertake not to participate in regular gatherings that are a fundamental part of Bahá'í community life. This is analogous to pressuring Christians to stop going to Church on Sunday. It is an egregious step-change in the government's efforts to dismantle every aspect of Bahá'í life, from the leadership down to the grassroots of Bahá'í communal identity.
What is more, the government incites hatred against the Bahá'ís from the wider population. The Bahá'í International Community last month released a report on a media campaign that demonizes and vilifies the Bahá'ís. Sanctioned by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself, who identified the Bahá'ís as "enemies of Islam" in a speech on 19 October 2010, Bahá'ís are branded variously as "others", as spies, as the promoters of obscene immorality and armed rebellion, and as the controllers of foreign media such as the BBC. They are the scapegoats for every social ill. Invoking a gross distortion of history, the Bahá'ís are portrayed as a "misguided sect" or as agents of Western and Zionist imperialism. Often they are depicted as ghouls. They are linked to Satanists, the Shah's secret police, and other organisations inimical to the state. And yet Bahá'í teachings promote peace and unity. Bahá'ís are spiritually obliged to abide by the law. Eschewing opposition to the government, and refusing the mantle of victimhood, they strive as they have always done to contribute to the betterment of their society.
Iran's intention to extinguish the Bahá'í community is clear. More than 200 Bahá'ís have been executed for their beliefs since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. International scrutiny and pressure has, for now, forced Iran to change tactics; but the government's campaign to squeeze the life out of the Bahá'í community is otherwise escalating and taking on new forms. It is attempting nothing less than a bloodless elimination of a significant section of Iran's citizens.
Moreover, the parallels between recent events and state-sponsored, anti-religious campaigns of the past are undeniable. History shows that such campaigns are among the foremost precursors of actual violence against religious minorities. The Bahá'ís in Iran have good reason to be concerned that the recent assaults on their community could presage a wider attack. The world has a duty to protect them. To look away now would allow the rising tide of persecution drown out the hope of justice in Iran.