Breaking the Taboo

After the seven Baha’i leaders were arrested in 2008, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi agreed to defend them against the Iranian regime’s charges. The government would close her Defenders of Human Rights Center in Tehran before the end of the year. Her defence was unsuccessful in the Revolutionary Court, and the Baha’is were each sentenced to 20 years in prison; but Ebadi’s stand on their behalf was a landmark.

In 2009, Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, who was Khomeini’s successor before falling out with the regime, became the highest-ranking Shia cleric to break the taboo on calling for an end to the persecution of the Baha’is. No one in Iran had publicly supported the Baha’is for decades – especially not a cleric. Though Montazeri was clear in saying he rejected Baha’i teachings, he insisted that Baha’is should have equal rights and be treated as full Iranian citizens.

More recently, another ayatollah, Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani, bestowed a powerful symbolic gift upon the Baha’is. A skilled calligrapher, Ayatollah Tehrani rendered a passage of Baha’i writings in his own hand.

More and more Iranians stood up for the Baha’is – and more soon followed.

Hateful Fatwas

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, struck back against the warmer attitude towards the Baha’is. He branded the Baha’i faith a “fake cult” and banned his followers from having any dealings with the community. Baha’i homes and businesses across the country were attacked by vigilantes. The government turned a blind eye to this harassment. The attacks were merely “spontaneous acts of anger by Muslims against infidels,” it said.

On 22 May 2011, officials from Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence staged yet another raid on the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education. As part of the raid, 30 homes were ransacked; families’ computers and books were confiscated, and 16 Baha’i educators were arrested and sent to Evin Prison. Among those imprisoned were the Rahimian brothers, Keyvan and Kamran, who left behind young children and their elderly mother. The brothers remain in Evin today.

New allies joined the Baha’is’ cause after the latest crackdown. Mohammad Maleki, who was president of Tehran University at the time of the revolution, paid a visit to the Rahimian family, telling them that no one should ever be denied the right to study because of their beliefs. When another former radical Islamist, Mohammad Nourizad, visited Kamran Rahimian’s son, Artin, he kissed the boy’s feet – a powerfully submissive gesture in Iranian culture – and apologized for the hardships suffered by the Baha’is.

It seems some Iranian Muslims are looking to create a new kind of Iran.


Education is not a crime. People around the world are telling the Iranian government that Baha’is must be allowed to attend university.

A documentary film released in 2014, To Light a Candle, produced by Maziar Bahari, tells the story of the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education. The film is a powerful account of the Baha’is and their peaceful resistance to oppression.

Let Iran know that you stand with the Baha’is in believing that education should never be a crime. Education is the birthright of all humanity.

Watch the documentary film To Light a Candle by Maziar Bahari to learn more.