Usually, a public declaration by any of Iran's ayatollahs regarding the country's long-persecuted Baha'i minority carries an insult or a threat. But a few months ago, the unthinkable happened.
In a symbolic move of solidarity, a senior Shia cleric, Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani, announced on his website that he had prepared a gift for the Baha'is of the world, particularly those in Iran, as "a reminder of the importance of valuing human beings, of peaceful coexistence, of cooperation and mutual support, and of avoidance of hatred, enmity and blind religious prejudice."
Tehrani's gift was an illuminated work of calligraphy of a passage from the Most Holy Book of the Baha'i Faith, calling upon Baha'is to "Consort with all religions with amity and concord." The artwork was the latest in his series of illuminated works made from the world's religious scriptures, including the Torah, the Psalms, the Book of Ezra, the New Testament and the Qur'an in their entirety. Regretful that his "physical and financial resources" did not allow him to illuminate the entirety of the Baha'i holy book, he instead prepared a work of fine Arabic calligraphy using one of its paragraphs.
This simple act was completely unprecedented. In the 170-year history of their religion, Iranian Baha'is have been subjected to condemnation and accusations of heresy, immorality, espionage and treason at the hands of the Shia clergy. While the vast majority of the Iranian population bears no ill will towards Baha'is, the clerical establishment and now the theocratic regime have long been engaged in violently oppressing the Baha'i community. Importantly, they have consistently sought to delegitimize the Baha'i faith by asserting that it is not a religion, but a subversive political group.
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The closest that any prominent Shia cleric had come to defending Baha'is was the late Grand Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, who was once the chosen successor of Khomeini but had fallen out with him in the 1980s over the regime's abuse of human rights. In 2008, Montazeri issued a statement declaring that, despite the fact that they are not Muslims, Baha'is are Iranians, and are entitled to the rights of citizens of Iran.
Similarly, in a recent Persian-language interview, Hassan Youssefi Eshkevari, a prominent cleric and former government supporter, stated that there was no basis for the allegations of espionage and cooperation with foreign countries which are routinely made against the Baha'is, and that there is no basis in the Qur'an on which to justify the persecution of Baha'is.
While Montazeri's statement was in itself historic, and Eshkevari's statement was bold, neither went so far as to acknowledge the basic right of Baha'is to consider their religion as just that: a religion. Tehrani's inclusion of Baha'i sacred writings in his project of calligraphic representations of the world's religious scriptures implicitly recognizes that the faith is in fact a religion, and promotes religious tolerance of Baha'is and others in Iran. Indeed, he said he hoped his gift would "serve as a reminder of the rich and ancient Iranian tradition of friendship and its culture of coexistence."
In many ways, this act represents the next step in the process of Iran's clergy catching up to the rest of the Iranian population in its attitudes towards Baha'is. Tehrani's gesture has garnered praise from religious leaders outside of Iran, including Imam Ibrahim Mogra, the assistant Secretary-General of the Muslim Council of Britain. And for the beleaguered community of Iran, his gift is a beacon of hope.
As one prominent Iranian-American professor has argued, bringing Baha'is into the fold of Iranian identity is a necessary first step in remedying Iran's social ills. Tehrani's courageous move can help Iran to take this first step. If embraced by large numbers of Iranians, particularly among the Shia clerics in power in Iran, his gift can help build a united and strong Iran where diversity is not simply tolerated but indeed celebrated.