Article by: Sandeep Singh Grewal

Manama, Bahrain – 23 May is a day when Baha’is from different pockets of the world celebrates the 165th anniversary of the birth of the Baha´i faith. While in Iran, families of seven Baha´i leaders are having sleepless nights after authorities reportedly arrested and jailed the group. The Iranian deputy prosecutor said in February the group was charged with propaganda against the regime and insulting religious sanctities.

It’s not only in Iran but places like Egypt and others where the Baha’i community are looked upon as apostates of Islam. Some call them ‘Zionists in disguise’ while others suffer from “Baha’i phobia”. They have no place of worship, their cemeteries are destroyed, properties confiscated and most of all- their faith is not recognized in the Arab and Gulf states.

“Just because they have their temple in Israel (Haifa) does not mean they should be labeled as Zionists. Historically, Baha’is have immense respect to Islam. But Jewish have more rights compared with Baha’is in Middle East,” said Esra’a Al Shafei, Director of Mideast Youth Foundation which runs the Muslim Network of Baha’i Rights.

The project (www.bahairights.org) is developed by the Bahraini activist along with a group of Muslim interfaith activists who believe in tolerance and co-existence. Frustrated with the growing silence by Arab governments, the group stormed into limelight when it launched this first kind of project in 2006 which primarily worked for rights of Baha’i and their acceptance in the society as a contributing community.

“It was a challenge for us to start this project at a time when Egypt and Iran were silently persecuting Baha’is because of their faith. We wanted this community to be legally recognized and accepted in any Muslim society,” Al Shafei said.

Baha’i Faith believes in the unity of God, religion, world peace, balance between nature and technology and gender equality among other teachings. The religion holds Baha’u'llah (the Glory of God) to be the greatest prophet which is seen as heretics for Muslims who believe Prophet Mohammed as the greatest of all prophets. There are an estimated six million Baha´is in the world spread over in 200 countries. According to a 2008 report on International Religious Freedom by the US authorities, there were about 300,000- 350,000 Baha´is in Iran followed by 2,000 in Egypt registered as religious minority in Muslim countries.

Al Shafei said with International pressure on these countries, Egypt for example she said, started to issue IDs for Baha´i, something which the government ignored earlier in issuance of the official ID cards. The Egyptians authorities only recognize three religions- Islam, Christianity or Judaism. Al Shafei said the result was hundreds of Baha´is left on the margins of the society with no access to medical care, education, employment, housing and other government services.

“We are fighting this war of perception in Arab and Gulf states to understand and accept this community. These people deserve their rights rather than being jailed or executed,” the activist explained.

It was not an easy journey for Al Shafei who has been vociferously condemned and criticized by clerics from the oil rich, Saudi Arabia and other regions.

“They call us names and say we will go to hell. Our work for some conservatives is against Islamic teachings.Some clerics leave abusive or life threatening comments on our website. My source of strength is my family for being supportive and understanding my passion for the cause,” the female activist said.

Their plate may be full of criticism, but there is also a small but growing portion of progressive Muslims who are supporting the cause. ” We have no propaganda and have managed to gain the trust of Muslims to support the Baha´is and stop their oppression,” the Bahrain youth explained.

Baha´is constitutes approximately 1% of Bahrain’s population, and the community faces no governmental interference in their worship and gatherings. In 2007, the Baha’i community organized a cultural conference to teach about their faith in the tiny island which is a close US ally. In neighboring Kuwait, where the community numbers at 400, the government views the Baha’i Faith as not being sanctioned by the Qur’an (holy book of Islam), the community cannot construct places of worship. But Baha’is can practice their faith privately without governmental interference. The situation is the same in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Jordan and Lebanon.

But the real change, Al Shafei said would happen when all the majorities start fighting for the rights of the minorities.

“For example, an Israeli supporting Palestinian human rights or Arabs recognizing Kurdish rights can make a sea change of difference. We need to create a network to humanize people towards religious and ethnic minorities across the world,” the Bahraini said.