Mr. Speaker, I rise today in support of the fourth report of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development on the Baha'i community in Iran. This subject is very important to our government. The report does an excellent job in highlighting the persecution faced by the Baha'i in Iran.
We believe that religious liberty is fundamental to a civilized society. That is why we condemn such persecution in all its forms, including those who continue the long-standing persecution against the Baha'i and by others who quietly excuse them. We believe that targeting innocent lives to achieve political objectives is always and everywhere wrong.
In addition to the report done by the committee, I would like to add a little historical perspective to demonstrate the long-suffering nature of the persecution faced by the Iranian Baha'i and the long-standing support provided to them by the government and the people of Canada. Under this government, I am proud to represent a strong Canada on the world stage that not just believes but fights to ensure that every man and woman in the world has rights and dignity.
Canada has been a leading voice in speaking out on the persecution of and for the rights and dignity of the Baha'i community in Iran. The Baha'is have been a persecuted minority community in Iran since the inception of the Baha'i faith in Iran over 160 years ago. The persecution has been consistent irrespective of which ideology or political orientation has happened to be in power.
The Baha'i community in Iran poses no threat to the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The principles of the Baha'i faith require its members to be obedient to their government, to avoid partisan political involvement, subversive activity and all forms of violence.
Unfortunately, a new and more violent wave of persecution against the Baha'i came in the way of the 1979 Iranian revolution. Since the revolution, 50 Baha'is have disappeared and more than 200 have been killed, two as recently as in 1997. The oppression of the Iranian Baha'i is not a matter of oversight or the thought of a few individuals acting in bad faith. It is planned and systematic.
In 1991 Dr. Sayyed Mohammad Reza Golpayegani, head of the office of the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khomenei, prepared a report, now known as the Golpayegani document, which outlined how the Islamic Republic of Iran would set out to undermine the well-being of the community.
The Golpayegani document was prepared on behalf of the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution. It was blessed by the president, the supreme leader Khomenei, who authorized the implementation of its recommendations.
The recommendations outlined in the document include the following elements.The government's dealing with the Baha'i must be in such a way that their progress and development are blocked. They can be enrolled in schools, provided they have not identified themselves as Baha'is. They must be expelled from universities either in the admissions process or during the course of their studies once it becomes known that they are Baha'is. A plan must be devised to confront and destroy their cultural roots outside the country. They will be denied employment if they identify themselves as Baha'is and will be denied any position of influence such as in the educational sector.
Unfortunately, these were not just words on paper. The subsequent history of the Baha'is' treatment at the hand of the government reads from this playbook.
I would like to talk about the education in a bit more detail to highlight the Golpayegani plan in action.
In 2006, the director general of the central security office of the Iranian ministry of science research and technology sent a message to 81 Iranian universities instructing them to expel any student who was discovered to be a Baha'i at the time of enrolment or in the course of his or her studies. The letter stated that the instructions were being promulgated under the provisions of decree 1327 of the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution of February 1991. This is the Golpayegani document.
The letter came after Iranian officials had informed the Baha'i community that its students would enrol in university under something like a “Don't ask, don't tell” approach. The 800 Baha'i students took the entrance exam for the academic year 2006-07. Three thousand students were allowed to enrol, but one by one they were identified and expelled as per the instructions delivered by the director general.
Educational problems are not limited to the university level. Elementary-aged children are regularly insulted and have been threatened with expulsion and, in some cases, the dismissals have been carried out. The harassment and severe psychological pressure faced by the young students is all the more intolerable, as they routinely are committed by those who should rightfully hold their trust: their teachers and school administrators.
While there are many examples of such behaviour, it is only fair to point out that there are many brave Iranian teachers who tried their best to ensure a healthy learning environment for all the students, including the Baha'i students, but the officially sanctioned policy of persecution means that too many Baha'i children face a hostile environment.
Canada has been a leading international defender of the Iranian Baha'i community. The Government of Canada was the first government in the world to draw attention to the severe persecution suffered by the Bahá'i community in Iran, when in June 1981 the House of Commons passed a strongly worded resolution condemning the post-revolutionary persecution of the Baha'is.
Canada led the world in admitting Baha'i families into our country as refugees during the first few years following the 1979 revolution. Several other countries followed our lead and together we welcomed 10,000 Baha'is from Iran into our countries.
Canada has championed the rights of the Iranian Baha'is in various United Nations fora and the representatives of the Baha'i community of Canada enjoy regular and substantive access to senior officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.
As I noted in the House of Commons on February 12, Canada is deeply troubled by these charges of espionage levelled at the Baha'i leadership in Iran. The Canadian embassy in Iran has conveyed these concerns directly to the Iranian authorities. We believe that these charges are unacceptable and without foundation, and that these individuals are being persecuted solely on the basis of their faith.
The Baha'i leadership has been detained without access to legal counsel for more than 10 months. Six members were arrested last May and the seventh may have been detained since March of last year. If found guilty, the seven could face the death penalty. In addition to the seven members facing charges of espionage, there are 30 more Iranian Baha'is in prison for their beliefs.
We are further troubled by public statements of senior Iranian officials that threaten the Baha'i community as a whole. For example, last month Iran's prosecutor general stated:
The administration of the misguided Bahá’i sect at all levels is unlawful and banned, and their ties to Israel and their opposition to Islam and the Islamic regime are clear. The danger they pose to national security is documented and proven...
The prosecutor general went on to state, and I find these words to be particularly chilling, that “ the administrative element [of the Bahá’í community] will be confronted decisively until its complete destruction”. Such comments are deeply worrying.
There have been a movement to intimidate defenders of the Baha'i, including Shirin Ebadi, winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize. In December 2008, the Iranian authorities closed the Defenders of Human Rights Center in Tehran, headed by Ms. Ebadi, and raided her private offices. As noted by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, in a statement issued on December 22 and December 30 of last year, Canada was seriously concerned by the closure of the Defenders of Human Rights Center and the raid on Shirin Ebadi private office.
I regret that these are just the latest in a long line of incidents of harassment, intimidation and the human rights violations aimed at the 300,000 Baha'is living in Iran. As I outlined earlier, this peaceful community has been targeted by the Iranian authorities and subjected to persecution, discrimination and detention for years.
This persecution has increased in recent years. Since 2005, there have been more than 200 arrests of Baha'is in Iran. On May 19, 2006, for example, Iranian authorities arrested 54 Baha'is in the city of Shiraz. Most of those arrested were youth and all were engaged in humanitarian service when they were arrested.
The humanitarian activities included tutoring children, offering art classes to young cancer patients at the hospital in Shiraz and visiting orphanages and facilities for physically and mentally challenged students. The Baha'is were later convicted of offences related to state security.
Other Baha'is have been arrested and convicted in recent years for such crimes as organizing the activities of the perverse Baha'i sect, being an active member of the Baha'i community and teaching Muslims secretly by providing them with Baha'i materials.
In the past year alone, more than 50 Baha'is have been arrested. Among those arbitrarily detained is Ms. Jinus Sobhani, who worked as an assistant at the Defenders of Human Rights Center headed by Ms. Shirin Ebadi.
In addition to the arbitrary arrests, Baha'is in Iran are also subjected to violence and intimidation. Death threats and vandalism are disturbingly common occurrences. One of the most disturbing trends is the increase in attacks on Baha'i cemeteries. The Baha'i cemetery in Darzikola, for example, has been repeatedly attacked, including with bulldozers and front-end loaders until being completely razed by municipal officers in January of this year.
Also in January, government workers entered a cemetery in Tehran and destroyed an entire section where Iranian authorities had buried many of the Baha'is executed in the years immediately following the Iranian revolution in 1979.
Iranian state media regularly publishes attacks on Baha'is and their faith. In November 2008, the Islamic Republic news agency announced the publication of a new anti-Baha'i book, which portrays Baha'is during the Shah era as spies holding key positions in media, government and the military.
Kayhan, the conservative state-sponsored newspaper, regularly publishes similar-themed articles slandering the Baha'is, including charges that the Baha'is are secretly linked to colonialism and Zionism. Others have gone so far as to link the Baha'i faith with satanic cults.
The government of Iran's treatment of the Baha'i community is in direct opposition to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a party. The covenant protects the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. It also states that no one shall be subject to arbitrary arrest or detention.
We urge Iran to live up to its commitments and obligations under domestic and international law, which it knowingly entered into, and to begin to adopt meaningful change in its human rights practices.
It is important to recognize that there are important voices in Iran who are calling for an end to the persecution of the Baha'is. The most prominent statement came from Grand Ayatollah Montazeri in May 2008.
Grand Ayatollah Montazeri had been the designated successor to Atayollah Khomeini, but fell out with him in 1989, shortly before Khomeini's death, over government policies that Montazeri claimed infringed on freedom and denied people's rights. Grand Atayollah Montazeri is under house arrest in Iran, but remains influential in religious circles. His May 2008 decree said:
The congregation of Baha’ism not having the heavenly book like those of Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians in the constitution...are not considered one of the religious minorities. However, since they are the citizens of this country, they have the rights of a citizen and to live in this country. Furthermore, they must benefit from the Islamic compassion which is stressed in Quran and by the religious authorities.
This simple statement defending the citizenship rights of the Baha'i community marked the most important defence of the rights of the Baha'is by a senior Islamic authority
It was an important step and one that demonstrates that there can be respect and dignity for the Baha'i people in Iran. There are other prominent voices in Iran calling for an end to the persecution of the Baha'is. The 2003 Nobel Peace Prize-winner, Shirin Ebadi, is one such brave voice. She has sought to defend Baha'is in the Iranian courts and has called for justice and respect for these citizens of Iran.
This government takes every opportunity to make it views on human rights and religious discrimination known to the authorities of Iran and to other countries. Support for freedom of religion is an integral part of our ongoing work in promoting human rights.
Canada continues to draw attention bilaterally and internationally to the persecution of the Baha'is and the overall human rights situation in Iran. As I noted, the Canadian embassy in Iran has raised this issue directly with the Government of Iran, and we will continue to express Canada's deep concern with the charges facing the Baha'i leadership.
Our government continues to urge Iran to fully respect all of its human rights obligations, both in law and in practice, and to eliminate all forms of discrimination against religious, ethnic, linguistic or other minorities.
The situation of the Baha'is is a reflection of the troubling human rights situation in Iran.
As Amnesty International and other human rights organizations have noted that persecution of religious and ethnic minorities goes beyond the Baha'i and includes Arabs, Azeris, Baluchis, Kurds, Christians, Jews, Sufis and Sunni Muslims.
Iran continues to execute more juvenile offenders than any other country. The rights of women and workers are suppressed and the Iranian authorities have gone to great lengths to limit freedom of expression and the media. There has also been a movement to intimidate academics and journalists as well as human rights defenders.
Addressing the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, such as the Baha'i in Iran, has been a consistent priority of our government.
The poor state of human rights in Iran prompted Canada and more than 40 other countries to again sponsor a UN General Assembly resolution on the human rights situation in Iran last December.
As a response to the report from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the resolution called attention to egregious human rights violations, including confirmed instances of torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, multiple public executions, persecution of minorities, including the Baha'i, and arrests of human rights defenders. The adoption of this resolution was a clear signal of the international community's ongoing concern for the human rights of people in Iran.
The government will continue to raise our concerns about the human rights and the Baha'i directly to the Government of Iran. The report of the standing committee will assist in Canada's ongoing pursuit of justice and dignity for the Baha'is of Iran.