Less than a decade after becoming king, in 1934, Reza Shah closed the Baha’i schools. His stated reason was that the schools observed Baha’i holy days and that this violated state regulations. Policemen were sent to eject students and teachers from their classrooms. Signs were removed from buildings. The schools were kept under guard for days to keep people from returning.
The order hurt more than the Baha’i community. Many local officials charged with carrying out the Shah’s command were unhappy, because their own children attended the Baha’i schools, which were considered to be among the best in the country.
Increasingly, the Baha’is suffered other forms of harassment, depending on the political needs of the moment. The Shah gave the Baha’is space to practice their faith when he was strong and inclined to annoy the mullahs. But whenever he felt political pressure mounting, from the public or the clergy, he targeted the Baha’is. To appease the mullahs, Baha’i marriages were made illegitimate, several Baha’i cemeteries were expropriated, and from time to time Baha’i gatherings were disrupted or banned.
Reza Shah’s ambitions to create a modern, secular central government took precedence. The Baha’i community and other religious minorities became pawns in a game of political control between the Pahlavis and the mullahs.
Sulayman Berjis, a doctor and a Baha’i in Kashan, dedicated himself to treating the poor, and offered his services for free. His practice worried the local Shia clerics, who were convinced that Berjis wanted to convert his Muslim patients to the Baha’i faith. When they warned him in 1950 to leave Kashan or suffer the consequences, he refused.
The mullahs were infuriated. They slandered him. They said that he was not qualified to be a physician and that his certificate was fake. They accused him of raping his female patients. Still, Berjis refused to shut his clinic. He would not be bullied into leaving his home.
Later that year, a man came to the doctor’s home to let him know that a person in a distant neighborhood needed medical attention, but was too ill to travel to the clinic. True to his practice, Berjis went out to attend the unknown patient. It was a trap. A group of eight men surrounded him on the street and stabbed him 81 times before throwing his body from the rooftop of a house in the city.
The killers were sentenced to prison – but not for long. The mullahs managed to secure their early release and praised them as heroes. The Baha’is could not feel safe.
During the Second World War, Muhammad Reza Shah had succeeded his father as king after British and Russian forces invaded Iran. A coup in 1953 against Mohammad Mossadeq, a popular nationalist prime minister, severely weakened the Shah’s rule. Many Iranians believed the Shah had allowed Mossadeq to be removed by the British and American secret services.
To secure his position, the Shah chose a familiar tactic: placate the mullahs by loosening his restrictions on their interests. A clutch of firebrand clerics denounced the Baha’is as traitors and incited a new wave of anti-Baha’i activity. Muhammad Reza Shah said nothing.
Things came to a head during the holy month of Ramadan in 1955, when Sheikh Muhammad Taqi Falsafi, a leading mullah, urged his followers to attack the main Baha’i center in Tehran. The royal army, led by General Nader Batmanghelich, joined the growing mob. The Baha’is were forced out and the building, starting with its iconic dome, was torn to pieces.
Several Baha’is were murdered as anti-Baha’i emotions ran unchecked across Iran. The Majlis even considered banning the Baha’i faith and introducing extreme policies such as sentencing Baha’is to solitary confinement and confiscating their property. None of the measures were passed but they portended a dark future for Baha’is in Iran.