Senator Penny Wright tells the Senate about state persecution of the Baha'i people

speeches-in-parliament

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (09:39): Tonight I also want to speak about the longstanding and continued state-sponsored persecution of the Baha'i people of Iran. Baha'is are a religious minority whose members have been imprisoned, tortured and killed since the 1979 Iranian revolution. In cruel contrast to the persecution they have experienced, theirs is a peaceful and gracious faith that emphasises the spiritual unity of all humankind. They believe in one god who is the source of all creation. They believe that all major religions have the same spiritual source and come from the same god, and they believe in the unity of humanity-that all humans have been created equal-coupled with the unity in diversity, with diversity of race and culture seen as worthy of appreciation and acceptance.

Tonight I also want to speak about the longstanding and continued state-sponsored persecution of the Baha'i people of Iran. Baha'is are a religious minority whose members have been imprisoned, tortured and killed since the 1979 Iranian revolution. In cruel contrast to the persecution they have experienced, theirs is a peaceful and gracious faith that emphasises the spiritual unity of all humankind. They believe in one god who is the source of all creation. They believe that all major religions have the same spiritual source and come from the same god, and they believe in the unity of humanity-that all humans have been created equal-coupled with the unity in diversity, with diversity of race and culture seen as worthy of appreciation and acceptance.

For Baha'is, universal peace is the supreme goal of human kind. It strikes me that the tenets of this faith have moral underpinnings which are very similar to those of the Australian Greens. The Baha'i writings clearly indicate that men and women are equal. They believe, from a spiritual point of view, that there is no difference between women and men and there is no basis-moral, biological, or social-for discrimination on grounds of gender. As such, there is an essential equality of rights and opportunities between men and women which is upheld and promoted.

There are quite a few Baha'is living in Australia-and, indeed, in my state of South Australia. In the 1980s, the Australian government was active in defence of the human rights of the Baha'is of Iran and in 1982 established a special humanitarian assistance program under which Iranian Baha'i refugees were eligible to migrate here. Over the ensuing years, several thousand Iranian Baha'is came to this country, enriching the size and diversity of the Australian Baha'i community and making a significant contribution to our nation as a whole. It is to our credit as a country that Baha'is have been able to seek asylum and migrate here and they can practise their religion and culture without fear of persecution or violence. It is one example of the rich legacy that comes from welcoming to Australia those who are most in need.

The Baha'is are targeted because their faith differs from the core belief of the Shia majority in Iran: that Mohammed is the last prophet sent by God. As a result they are subject to abhorrent and cruel treatment by their own government. The Baha'is have faced official prejudice and systematic persecution as a matter of government policy since the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution, when Ayatollah Khomeini replaced the Shah as supreme leader of the Islamic Republic. The ensuing regime and the Iranian clerics regard the Baha'is as apostates and, under the new regime, Shia Islam became law. Persecution started with anyone who identified as Baha'i being expelled and barred from Iranian universities, from holding a government job and from participating in the political process.

In the early 1980s, more than 200 Baha'is were executed, and hundreds have been tortured and imprisoned, being branded as 'spies for Israel' and other fictitious crimes. Propaganda against the Baha'i began appearing in the media, calling them 'enemies of God'. Strict limitations have been imposed on their right to assemble and worship. Frequent assaults are not investigated by the authorities-including knife attacks, sexual assaults and murders-creating a sense of impunity for their would-be attackers. Raids and arrests happen frequently, usually with the charge of 'engaging in propaganda against the regime'.

Thirteen people were arrested in April this year, taking the total to over 115, including seven members of a former leadership group sentenced to 20 years in prison. They are also subject to economic persecution and intimidation. Since 2007 there have been more than 600 documented incidences of shop closings, revocation of business licences, vandalism, arson and other efforts to prevent Baha'is from earning a livelihood.

Earlier this year I was invited to speak in Adelaide at the Australian premiere of a documentary film called To Light a Candle, made by Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari. I spoke as a member of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights in this federal parliament, as a member of the Amnesty International parliamentary friendship group and in my role as the Australian Greens' spokesperson for legal affairs-with particular responsibility for human rights.

Maziar Bahari is an Iranian/Canadian journalist, filmmaker and human rights activist. Whilst not Baha'i himself, he has experienced the brutality of the Iranian regime. He spent 118 days in prison in 2009 on charges of espionage. While telling a sad story, To Light a Candle is actually a very hopeful film and trumpets knowledge over intolerance and the resilience of the human spirit. It insists that education is not a crime. The film celebrates the BIHE-Baha'i Institute for Higher Education-which was established in 1987 after the cruel banning of Baha'is from teaching and studying at universities in Iran. This was a particularly poignant aspect of their persecution because the Baha'is place such a great emphasis on education, learning and knowledge. Indeed, by 1973, before the revolution, the Baha'is in Iran were the first to have achieved a literacy rate of 100 per cent among women under the age of 40 despite the national literacy rate of 15 per cent.

In response to the ban a group of volunteer professors and researchers who had been discharged from their universities and colleges for no reason other than their membership in the Baha'i Faith set up the BIHE to meet the burning desire for education amongst their young people. They dedicated themselves to the BIHE project bravely offering secret classes in peoples' homes by mail and now email correspondence to equally brave students thirsty for knowledge. This does require amazing courage because the people involved in the BIHE have been and still are under threat. In 1998 and again in 2011, the authorities raided hundreds of home classrooms, confiscating materials, books and computers. Thirteen Baha'is are currently in jail in Iran for teaching and learning taboo subjects-dangerous subjects like algebra, psychology and poetry.

To Light a C andle uses personal stories and dramatic archival footage to explore both the persecution of the Baha'is and their inspiring peaceful resistance as part of Iran's democracy movement. After 30 years the BIHE is still operating today, recognised by a number of universities across the globe, including three here in Australia. It offers 37 university-level programs across five faculties: science, engineering, business and management, humanities and social sciences. These days they use leading communication technologies to connect students with domestic and international teachers and experts who are consultants. The Baha'i Institute for Higher Education has evolved from a compensatory institution to a university with academic standards not only on a par with the Iranian public university system but also equal to the standards adopted by leading universities around the world.

Parliamentarians are in a unique position to promote international human rights. I feel strongly that we should use our privilege and power to speak up for those who have neither. As a strong trading partner of Iran and with recent discussions between the regime and our foreign Minister, Australia is in a better position than it has been for some time to make its voice heard. The international community has a responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other means to promote human rights and protect populations from the sorts of crimes that the Baha'is are routinely exposed to in Iran. I urge our Australian government to look at doing more to speak up for the Baha'i and I would encourage everyone to watch To Light a Candle. It echoes the Amnesty International edict, which is that at times of darkness it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. I urge people to watch the filmto find out more about these peaceful, gracious people and to be uplifted by the resilience of the human spirit at times of great challenge.