For the very first time, a group of civil rights activists in Iran is publicly championing the rights of Baha'is. Among this group of activists, which is comprised of prisoners and political figures, is Mohammad Nourizad. Nourizad is the most exemplary and active of their number, and has proven himself a true pioneer in advocating for the rights of this embattled minority.
Ever since the formation of their religion in the middle of the 19th century, followers of the Baha'i creed have been subjected to continuous persecution and harassment in Iran. In the decades before the Iranian Revolution, such oppression took the forms of violence, mass killings, defilement of holy places, destruction of personal and collective property, and attempts at forced conversion. The triumph of the 1979 revolution and subsequent rise of the Islamic Republic has exacerbated these human rights violations, as now the government condones and occasionally perpetrates these abuses itself. Baha'is in Iran are estimated to number between 300,000 and 350,000, comprising Iran's largest religious minority. The present government does not recognize the Baha'i creed as a legitimate religion, instead designating it as a form of apostasy from authentic Islam and a political movement tied to Western governments. Since 1979, more than 200 Baha’i leaders have been killed or executed and upwards of 2,000 adherents have been removed from positions in government and education.
This pressure has only increased in the last decade, particularly since 2009. Hundreds of Baha’is, including seven community leaders and instructors in higher education, have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms solely on the basis of their religious beliefs since 2005. Their charges have included espionage, spreading anti-government propaganda, and taking actions that threaten national security. Among other abuses, Baha'is have been deprived of their right to attend university, and subjected to promotion limitations in various careers, violent physical attacks, cemetery desecrations, and defamation in state media. At present, the Rouhani administration's charter of citizen rights, which affords protection only to those religious minorities recognized in Iran's constitution, does not extend rights to Baha'is.
This discrimination and human rights violations have been met from the outset by widespread protest from the international community. The UN General Assembly has issued numerous resolutions expressing concern for the state of human rights of religious minorities in Iran and of Baha'is in particular.
Innovative and creative efforts on the part of civil society groups inside and outside the country have given rise to cutting-edge campaigns on social media for the rights of Baha'is, such as "No To Jail and Persecution for Our Fellow Baha'i Citizens," "Protection for Baha'i Educational Rights," and other symbolic efforts encouraging solidarity with the Baha'i minority. Meanwhile inside Iran, Mohammed Nourizad, a reporter and political activist critical of the Islamic Republic, has gone to great lengths to secure the rights of Baha'is by pioneering new forms of activism. Nourizad has enjoyed the support and patronage of a number of civil and political activists, among them Ayatollah Abdolhamid Masoumi Tehrani, a Shi’a cleric critical of the government; Doctor Mohammad Maleki, a political activist and the first president of the University of Tehran after the Revolution; Nasrin Sotudeh, a human rights lawyer; Narges Mohammadi, a journalist and human rights activist; Jila Baniyaghoub, a journalist and political activist; and Isa Saharkhiz, a political and media activist.
Nourizad, whose relationship with the regime has gone from ardent supporter to dissident, turned a new page for pro-Baha'i civil activism on July 15, 2013, with the publication of his article "A Kiss Upon the Foot of a Little Baha'i" in which he detailed his visit to Artin, the young child of two imprisoned Baha'is. Through such actions, activists working for the rights of religious majorities primarily intend to discourage "rash and hasty conduct with people who hold differing opinions," including Baha'is. In "The Controversy of an Untimely Kiss," another article published on his personal website on July 19, Nourizad addressed objections to his actions, opining that such reactions "do not prove so much the concern of our clerics with the apostasy of Muslims in these long years. They instead indicate that our clerics, in all ages of history, have found their calling in scuffling with critics. Such scuffling has proven to be for our clerics an critical existential need, vital to their very survival."
The primary demands of this activist movement include the release of Baha'i prisoners jailed for their religious convictions and the restoration of educational rights for Baha'i youth. Visits to the houses of prisoners' families and to youth who have been denied schooling are now a key tactic used by pro-Baha'i activists. Activists show their "shame and revulsion" at the actions of the Islamic government abusing the rights of Baha'is through these visits. Participating in the sixth anniversary of the arrest of two Baha'i community leaders along with Ayatollah Masoumi Tehrani, Isa Sarkhiz, Nasrin Sotudeh, and Narges Mohammadi in April 2014, Nourizad remarked: "On account of the suffering borne by these dear people, every one of us should, in some way or another, express our shame."
The fundamental objectives of Nourizad's efforts include fostering peaceful coexistence between the followers of various faiths in Iran and discouraging religious individuals from embracing blind religious bigotry. Ayatollah Masoumi Tehrani, the renowned cleric and intellectual innovator, highly commended Nourizad's actions, publicly endorsing and characterizing them as "a symbolic form of humanitarian expression and respect for humanity" without regard to religion, sect, race, or nationality. Tehrani also donated a gilded, illuminated copy of the Baha'i holy book to the community at large as a Nowruz gift in 2014, calling it "a demonstrative and lasting testament to respect for the essential dignity of persons and for peaceful coexistence without regard to affiliations of religion, sect, or opinion." In a letter expressing sympathy and filled with tenderness, the Ayatollah described his gift as a "reminder of the value invested in the humanity of the person, peaceful coexistence, cooperation, sympathy, and the foregoing of vengefulness, rigidity, and blind religious bigotry."
Some other objectives of these activists include correcting erroneous beliefs and false conceptions regarding Baha'is, countering inflammatory claims propagated by state media, and managing the effects of harmful pronouncements made by the government. Though it may be argued that this movement has taken more strictly symbolic actions than actions with tangible effects, its long-term goal remains the realization of equal human and civil rights for all Iranians, regardless of religion, sect, and opinion.
Mohammad Nourizad was born on December 10th, 1952 in a rural area near Shahriar. He previously worked as a journalist, documentarian, filmmaker, and painter, and is a former contributor to Kayhan magazine. At one time a staunch supporter of the leadership of the Islamic Republic, Nourizad joined the ranks of dissidents and critics after the election of 2009. Following this, he wrote letters in which he harshly criticized the actions of the Supreme Leader. Nourizad begged forgiveness for his past support of the regime, and soon became one of the leading figures of the Green Movement. After the movement subsided, Nourizad resumed his own activist agenda even more energetically, joining the struggle against the Islamic Republic's repressive and discriminatory policies.
It was at this time that the issue of Baha'i rights took a central focus in Nourizad's activism. In July of 2013, he took the unprecedented step of visiting the house of Kamran Rahimian and Faran Hasami, two incarcerated professors of a Baha'i higher education institute. There he begged the forgiveness of their young child, Artin, for the unjust imprisonment of his parents, requesting that he spit on and slap Nourizad's face in atonement. Inspired by the actions of the Catholic Pope, who on Easter of that year had kissed the feet of an imprisoned girl, Nourizad himself kissed Artin's feet, telling him: "My dear boy, on behalf of those who have burdened you and your coreligionists with our misdeeds in these Islamic years, I ask your forgiveness… When the Pope, leader of the world Catholicism, kneels to kiss to the feet of a criminal Muslim girl, why should I, on behalf of the expansive clergy of the world's Muslims and all of the Shi'a Marajeh, not place kisses on your tiny blessed feet?"
Nourizad has tirelessly struggled to spread his message in Iranian society, publishing his writings, travelling to different provinces, making speeches, and participating in debates to invite others to join his cause. In response to the Marajeh's denunciation of pagans, communists, atheists, and Baha'is as "unclean," Nourizad launched a new campaign to "sweep clean" the face of humanity, Islam, and Shi'ism. In September 2013, just after the state media republished Ayatollah Khamenei's fatwas concerning uncleanliness and the necessity of ostracizing Baha'is, Nourizad called on all Iranians, particularly Muslims and Shias, to join him in his campaign with the following plea: "Either one by one or in groups, go to the houses of the Baha'is and atheists. Kiss them on the eyes, mingle with them, bring them gifts out of your shame and desire for atonement, eat of their food. The next day, publish a report of your visit, either in print or online."
Through such steps, Nourizad went where few other activists and religious reformers dared. By harnessing the power of the Internet, he attempted to raise awareness of his activities, inviting others to join him with their own individual efforts. For this reason, Nourizad has come to be recognized as a dissenting voice for those "without the courage to protest themselves."
In the Islamic Republic of Iran, the most powerful political position is that of the Supreme Leader, which is currently occupied by Ayatollah Khamenei. He is the final authority for all branches of government and directly influences the great bulk of other positions of influence. For example, he directly appoints the head of the judicial branch, as well as the head of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting agency. In accordance with Article 57 of the Iranian Constitution, the legislative, administrative, and executive branches "are under the guardianship of the absolute authority and command of the nation’s Imamate." Since the Islamic Republic's rise to power, various freedoms - such as those of expression, criticism, assembly, political activity, and religion - have been severely curtailed. A 2014 report from Freedom House notes that, even if some dimensions of political rights and individual freedoms have been improved under the Rouhani administration, the general state of freedom in Iran remains dim.
The official religion of Iran is Twelver Shism. In its 13th article, the Iranian Constitution recognizes only Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity as official minority religions. These religious communities are "free within the boundaries of the law to conduct their own ceremonies, personal occasions, and religious instruction on the basis of their own creeds." The constitution and government policy recognize no rights for unofficial religious minorities, including Baha'is. These groups are often subjected to widespread discrimination. In February 2014, the United Nations General Assembly signed Resolution 68/184 in which it expressed deep concern for the general state of human rights in Iran, the persecution of unofficial religious minorities, and the violation of human rights for particular groups in Iran, especially those of the Baha'is and their advocates.
Presently, activists working for the rights of religious minorities are faced with many obstacles in their work, and are often repressed or harassed by the authorities. Despite promises made by the Rouhani administration for greater freedoms in the political sphere, the government has not been able to create a space where Iranians can securely exercise their freedoms of expression and assembly. Civil society activists and human rights defenders are often faced with charges such as "undermining national security" and "spreading propaganda against the regime." Various reporters have observed an increase in the number of security-related charges made against human rights defenders and have accordingly expressed concern about this phenomenon. Though the constitution permits the founding of political parties, trade associations, and other sorts of organizations on the condition of compliance with the Islamic Republic's policies on independence, freedom, national unity, Islamic standards and the principles of the Islamic Republic, in practice those who wish to found such an organization face many restrictions. After the 2009 presidential election, dissident groups and parties experienced a harsh crackdown, with many of their leaders being detained in prison or banned from political activity. Freedom of expression was further restricted. The government has assumed direct control of Seda vo Sima, the official media agency. Press freedoms have been improved somewhat, though the Media Supervisory Council is still able to in prosecute journalists under charges such as “belligerence,” “insult to the sanctity of Islam and state officials,” and “propaganda against the regime.” Threats of prosecution are often used to enforce self-censorship. 
It was in this political atmosphere that Nourizad was found guilty of insulting the authorities and spreading propaganda against the regime in 2009. He was sentenced to three and a half years in prison and fifty lashes. After his release, Nourizad resumed his activities with greater resolve than ever before, often being subjected to further brutality and detainment at the hands of security forces. None of this persecution has succeeded in persuading Nourizad to give up on his projects. Nor have Nourizad’s supporters abandoned him; despite the many pressures and restrictions the government places on them, they continue their efforts to secure the rights of religious minorities in Iran.
Nourizad’s campaign bears a distinct message: religion is an individual and internal affair, and all people independent of their faith and opinions have the right to equal opportunity and a life with dignity in Iran. In Nourizad’s words: “The parties, organizations, and representatives that over the course of these abuses have yet to be stirred to action in defense of the civil rights of this little Baha’i Artin are really better suited to attend toilets at the Shah of Isfahan mosque.”
Another of Nourizad’s objectives is breaking prevailing religious taboos and contesting the religious foundations of many Iranians' thought - especially those of clerics who promote the persecution and marginalization of religious minorities. Many Shia jurists believe that apostasy makes one unclean: thus because they consider communists, Buddhists, the irreligious, and Baha’s apostates, they also consider them to be unclean. In a religious address redistributed by state media on the eve of the inauguration of the eleventh presidential administration, Ayatollah Khamenei opined that “all members of the errant Baha’i sect are apostates and unclean; one must avoid food and all else that has come in contact with their pestilent exhalations. It behooves the faithful to oppose the cunning and degeneracy of this lost sect.” Nourizad characterizes such pronouncements as “an irrational and inauthentic understanding of Islam on the part of the Marajeh” and declares that through actions such as eating fruit and drinking water from Artin’s hands and appealing to others to do the same, he is standing against such unjust defamation. Nourizad's activist activities transmit a message to his fellow Muslims and the people of Iran: “Even if the food of a Baha’i is not more pure than that of a Twelver Marjah, it certainly is no less so.”
Nourizad hopes to raise awareness in Iranian society and the international community of the repression and injustice certain Muslims have authorized against Baha’is in the name of Islam. He also hopes to dispel the false claims about Baha'is that have become prevalent in Iran. Pursuing his goals primarily on his own and occasionally with the help of a small circle of activists, Nourizad is not searching for a mass mobilization: he hopes to spread his message among the people through his own writings, debates, travels, and paintings.
Nourizad’s work championing Baha’i rights has received wide coverage in the media and considerable acclaim abroad. Artin’s father addressed Nourizad in a letter he wrote from Rejayi Prison, calling Nourizad’s actions “an effort towards realizing values such as respect, kindness, justice, support, responsibility, equality, awareness, and empathy.” On July 24, 2014, a group of activists located both in and outside of Iran penned a letter praising Nourizad’s bravery and at the same time criticizing the silence of civil society and religious reformers as regarded Nourizad's campaigns. The activists defended Nourizad’s work, condemning the widespread abuse of the rights of religious minorities in the country.
Civil activists continue their work defending the rights of Baha’is, and neither the threats nor the detentions the Islamic Republic has imposed have managed to stop or discourage them. Nourizad has recruited a large number of activists to help him draw the attention of Iranians and the international community to his cause. The activities of Nourizad and his colleagues have been important steps in erasing religious taboos and correcting ingrained discriminatory beliefs among Iranians about Baha'is. Though the government's treatment of Baha'is has yet to change, Nourizad's efforts have opened a door to that possibility. Building on the foundations that Nourizad has laid, Nourizad and others can now navigate a new way forward to achieve equal civil rights for all Baha’is.
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