Decent men and women everywhere rightly object to religious persecution. Such persecution is all the more reprehensible when its victims are themselves tolerant people who, by any average norm, are law-abiding citizens. This description fits the Bahai community in Iran, now feeling the full fury of Shia Muslim zealotry in the power struggle in that revolution-wracked land.
There are between 300,000 and 500,000 Bahais in Iran. It has been their lot both under the Shah and even more since Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile to be treated by Shia Muslims as heretics. This is because ever since the establishment of the Bahai faith in 1844, its Persian founder, the Bab (or the Gate), has been treated by Shia Muslims as usurping the role of the twelfth Shia Imam, whose return to earth is still awaited. Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism are all recognized even in the new Constitution of Iran as religions enjoying the protection of the law. The Bahai faith is not.
Hence the vulnerability of the Bahais as scapegoats - on whom societies in upheaval have so often turned. One need only recall the sufferings of Armenians in Turkey during World War I and, more recently, of Jews in Hitler's Reich.
Bahais believe in the equality of the sexes, in universal compulsory education, and in noninvolvement in politics. This approach has tended to make it easier for them to adjust to modernization and Westernization than most other Iranians - another stroke against them in the eyes of Shia fundamentalists.
Under the Islamic Revolution, all Bahais have been dismissed from government employment. The denomination's US headquarters in Wilmette, Illinois, say that since the beginning of the revolution 111 Bahais have been executed or lynched in Iran. (The figure conceded by the Iranian authorities is 97.)
In August 1980 the nine members of the national governing body of the faith in Iran were abducted and disappeared. On Dec. 27 last, eight of the nine replacements on that body were executed. The remains of five of them were interred in the infidels' section of a Muslim cemetery, even though the Bahais have their own burial ground. On Jan. 4, six of the nine members of the local Bahai governing body in Tehran were executed. Now there are reports that the Iranian Foreign Ministry is issuing instructions to Iranian diplomatic missions to revoke the passports of all Iranian Bahais living abroad.
By what possible standards can this ever-increasing persecution be considered civilized - or acceptable?