Over a month ago, a significant shift took place in Iran regarding the status of minority faiths in the country. Before I go into this, Iran recently seemed to dominate my conversation with a young woman that I met by chance at a conference in Central London.
About two weeks ago I was sitting at a public event and struck up a conversation with an Iranian Jewish woman about the two thousand years of Jewish heritage in Iran that has dwindled and where many have left to the United States, Europe and other countries across the globe. The history of the Jewish people, once so entwined in Persia and its development, has virtually been lost and Persia was once the seat of Jewish learning and tradition. Interestingly, during the course of this conversation I also found that Judaism is one of the oldest religions practiced in Iran, yet the population currently stands at around 9,000 Jews with most of them residing in the capital, Tehran. The great Jewish history of Persia, depressingly, is on its last legs.
Which brings me onto the significant event that took place in Iran a month ago. After the conservative rigidity of the past forty years in Iran that came about after a people's revolution, (against what was perceived to be foreign intervention through the Shah of Iran's administration), a ray of interfaith light seemed to beam from the country. Whilst this does not take away from the significant human rights abuses in the country and the public hangings and floggings taking place in the country, a prominent Muslim cleric, Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani announced in April 2014 that he was to gift the Baha'is of the world, an illuminated work of calligraphy of a paragraph from the writings of the Baha'u'llah, the Prophet founder of the Baha'i faith.
This is inspiring given the systematic persecution of Baha'is in Iran and the symbolism of 'reaching out' comes in the wake of several recent statements by religious scholars in the Muslim world who have set out alternative interpretations of the teachings of Islam in which tolerance of every religion is, in fact, upheld by the holy Qur'an. Sadly though, there are about 120 Baha'is in prison in Iran simply based on their religious beliefs and this is a stain on the country that needs immediate redress. Freedom of religion and belief are fundamental human rights that need universal protection.
The Muslim scholar, Ayatollah Tehrani suggested on his web-site that he had prepared the calligraphy of the verse as a:
"symbolic action to serve as a reminder of the importance of valuing human beings, of peaceful coexistence, of cooperation and mutual support, and of avoidance [of] hatred, enmity and blind religious prejudice."
He also went onto say that the Baha'is of Iran had:
"suffered in manifold ways as a result of blind religious prejudice," and that that act, "is an expression of sympathy and care from me and on behalf of all my open-minded fellow citizens."
The artwork features at its centre a symbol known to Baha'is as "The Greatest Name" - a calligraphic representation of the conceptual relationship between God, His prophets and the world of creation. The artwork took months to prepare lifts text from Baha'u'llah's Kitab-i-Aqdas - "Most Holy Book." It reads:
"Consort with all religions with amity and concord, that they may inhale from you the sweet fragrance of God. Beware lest amidst men the flame of foolish ignorance overpower you. All things proceed from God and unto Him they return. He is the source of all things and in Him all things are ended."
Whilst this gesture is to be warmly welcome, Iran and its rich cultural history have been affected deeply by revolutionary reactions to the Shah of Iran and the subsequent push back against the arts and anything that was perceived to be of 'Western influence.' Yet imams in Iran are finding a strength and the moral conviction to see Islam through the prison of inclusion rather than exclusion and in realizing that to right a wrong, one has to acknowledge the harms done in the past.
Let us hope that this is a start and that the future brings forth many more Ayatollah Tehrani's. At the very least, his actions may inspire others to acknowledge minority faith communities in Iran.