As the war in Yemen rages on, the country’s Baha’i population faces unprecedented levels of persecution simply for practising their faith and seeking to serve their communities. James Mohajer discusses Iran’s influence on the Houthis and the chilling statements made by both the Iranian and Houthi leaderships. The worst humanitarian crisis of today arguably remains under-reported – as does the severe religious intolerance towards Yemeni Baha’is whose neighbourly compassion has led to jail cells and death sentences.‘We will butcher every Baha’i.’
These were the words of a prominent Houthi writer and strategist in response to a speech made by Mr Abdel-Malek al-Houthi, the leader of the Houthis, in March 2018. In his speech, Mr al-Houthi urged Yemenis to defend their country from Baha’is, whom he described as infidels and deniers of Islam, and encouraged acts of violence and incited hatred towards them.
What crimes have been committed by these Baha’is to evoke such animosity and hatred? According to reports, the official charges against some of the current prisoners include ‘showing kindness to the poor’ and ‘displaying good behaviours’. Is it truly possible, as one former prisoner shared, that because Yemen is at war, the Baha’is are criminalised for promoting peace? If the promotion of peace is not the true role of religion, then what else is religion for?
According to the UN, Yemen is now the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, with over 22 million people needing aid and more than 1 million children infected with cholera. It seems to be a little known fact that the conflict started four years ago when Houthi rebels, backed by Iran, marched on Sana’a, the capital city. The Houthis have remained in de facto control in the north of the country ever since. What has been further kept out of news bulletins are the actions of the Houthis towards the Yemeni people living under their control. This includes Yemeni Baha’is and members of other minorities.
The Baha’i Faith is the world’s youngest independent religion, founded by Baha’u’llah in late-nineteenth-century Iran. Baha’u’llah brought many teachings including the oneness of humankind, the equality of women and men and the elimination of all forms of prejudice. There are over 6 million Baha’is around the world, including 2,000 in Yemen who, with their friends and neighbours, are working together to contribute to the development and progress of their local and national communities. One of these development conferences, which was an educational conference organized by the Nida Foundation for Development and the Baha’i community of Yemen, was raided in August 2016, and over 60 Baha’i and Muslim youth were arrested for nothing other than trying to better their community.
Ever since the founding of the Baha’i Faith in 1844, Baha’is in Iran have been persecuted for their religious beliefs. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, however, the persecution of Baha’is in Iran became systematic, coordinated, and state-sponsored. Why are we now seeing the same patterns emerging in Yemen?
In a memorandum produced by the Iranian Government in 1991 called “The Baha’i Question”, which ominously set out the policy for how the Iranian state would deal with the Baha’is, one section noted that ‘a plan must be devised to confront and destroy their cultural roots outside the country‘. What I believe we are seeing in Yemen is the fruition of this policy. This has also been touched upon by Dr Ahmad Shaheed, the Special Rapporteur on the Freedom of Religion or Belief, who noted that the ‘persecution of the Bahá’í community in Sana’a mirrors the persecution suffered by the Bahá’ís living in Iran‘.
Additionally, there are other indicators of Iran’s influence in targeting the Baha’is in Yemen. These include parallels in the patterns of raids, arrests, and charges against the Baha’is, and several independent sources from within Yemen repeatedly stating that the Iranian authorities are directing efforts to persecute the Baha’is in Yemen through high-ranking officials.
This latest episode of incitement to hatred in Yemen by Mr al-Houthi, and what may even be defined as incitement to genocide, has not appeared in isolation. Rather, it has developed over a period of time that has seen the mass arrest in August 2016 mentioned above; the call in April 2017 for the arrest of over 25 Baha’is; and the court pronouncement in January 2018 for the public execution of Mr Hamed bin Haydara.
Mr bin Haydara, a father of three and a Yemeni Baha’i, has been detained in Sana’a since December 2013 for his religious beliefs. His father, who was born in Iran, moved to Yemen in the 1940s to work as a medical doctor. He soon became known for his noble character and, in light of his services in Socotra and to the people of Yemen, he was granted citizenship by ‘Isa bin ‘Ali bin Afrar, the Mahra Sultan of Qishn and Socotra. Mr bin Haydara was born a Yemeni citizen, but his arrest and death sentence have prevented him from walking in his fathers’ footsteps and being of service to his country.
At present, six Baha’is are being held in prison and Mr bin Haydara remains under sentence of death. This death sentence, it should be noted, marks the first time in Yemeni history that someone has been condemned to death as a result of their religious beliefs. The wider implications of this explicit violation of the right to the freedom of religion or belief, in a country that is already reeling from the devastating consequences of war, are deeply alarming.
About the author
James Mohajer studied Law with International Relations at Canterbury Christ Church University (Bachelors) and Public International Law at the London School of Economics (Masters). Since 2016 he has been working at the UK Baha’i Office of Public Affairs primarily seeking to protect the rights of Baha’is in Iran and Yemen, as well as promoting the freedom of religion and belief more generally. He writes in a personal capacity.