The Baha’is, a minority discreetly persecuted in war-torn Yemen
Observers say that Iranian backed Houthi rebels are carrying out discriminatory acts against the religious minority similar to those taking place in Iran.
The Baha’is are one of the silent victims of the brutal war in Yemen, where they are forced to practice their faith in total secrecy. Approximately 2,000 Baha’is live in the country, which is in the throes of a civil war pitting forces loyal to President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, backed by Saudi and the UAE, against the Houthis.
Most Bah’is live in in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, which is under the control of Iranian backed Houthi rebels who systematically persecute the small community.
Carrying out their religious rituals is a risk to their lives. The Houthis call the Baha’is “satanic” and accuse them of being “spies of Israel” and “heretics”. Their rhetoric echoes the language of the Iranian regime’s violent anti-Baha’i propaganda that has fuelled a campaign of economic and political persecution in Iran. The similarity is not a coincidence, according to observers, but a sign of the close links between the rebels and Iran’s political leadership in Tehran.
The Baha’i Faith is a monotheistic religion that first appeared in Iran in the mid 19th century. Its principles and values come from the writings of Mirza Husayn Ali Nouri, also known as Baha’u’llah, who is considered to be the religion’s devine messenger.
Today, there are an estimated 6 million members of the religion around the world, and the Baha’i World Center, the spiritual and administrative center of the religion, is in Israel. It encompasses sites in the cities of Acre (Akka in Arabic) and Haifa, including Baha’u’llah’s mausoleum and the Universal House of Justice, the supreme ruling body of the faith.
“The cohabitation between the Baha'is and the Israeli authorities is going well,” an anonymous Baha’i source told L’Orient-Le Jour. “Our community and the Universal House of Justice, however, remain completely apolitical, and most of the staff there actually do not have Israeli citizenship.”
"The Baha'i faith has its holy places in Israel for the simple reason that Baha’u’llah was exiled by two Muslim powers: Iran and the Ottoman Empire. He was sent to the worst prison of the Empire, which was the prison of Akka (or Acre citadel), in Palestine, where he died in 1892," the Baha’i community representative to the United Nations, Diane Ala'i, explained. "It was long before there was even a mention of the State of Israel or anything else, and the Iranians know that fact very well. Their accusations are lies, and a distortion of a historical truth… There is no connection between the Baha'i faith and Israel.”
Persecutions in Sanaa
"The de facto authorities in Sana’a have targeted the Baha’i community in Yemen in what appears to be a persistent pattern of persecution, which includes raids, arrests and prolonged arbitrary or illegal detentions," said UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Ahmad Shaheed.
"The Baha’is have also been the subject of an extremely dangerous campaign of incitement to hatred waged by the highest Houthi authorities, including their leader Mr. Abdul-Malek al-Houthi," Shaheed continued. "This has led to social media comments such as ‘we will butcher every Baha’i… [and] a Yemeni television program also specifically referred to individual Baha’is by name and displayed their photographs, thereby placing these individuals in imminent danger.”
"Due to the situation, since they’re persecuting us, all the Baha’is are in a way or another in hideout. They try to keep a low profile because most of them are wanted by the Houthi authorities,” Karim*, a Yemeni Baha'i who spoke with L’Orient-Le Jour, said. “In a way, it has affected us in our daily life in Yemen because many families tried to escape to different locations due to the persecutions and many children lost their education in the process.”
As recently as Sept. 24, Baha'is, including eight women and one teenage girl, were tried at the Sanaa Specialized Criminal Court and charged with apostasy, teaching the Baha'i faith and espionage – serious indictments that could be punishable by death. "There is no evidence; it was a judgment without charges," Ala'i, the UN representative, said.
All of the defendants had been imprisoned since 2017 and were taken from their cells to the court without a lawyer, according to Ala’i. Other Baha’is were summoned to court, but did not attend and are now considered fugitives.
At the second hearing a few weeks later, the judge decided to freeze the property of all five defendants while their lawyer asked that they be released on bail. “The judge, however, decided to leave the [bail] decision for the next hearing,” Ala’i added. “That should have been held Saturday, Nov. 10, but it was postponed indefinitely, which means that the five prisoners are also held indefinitely. As for the other 19 accused, they remain in a very precarious situation."
In early Oct., the Baha’i spokesperson in Yemen, Abdallah al-Olofi, was also arrested by rebel forces when he was on the way to the market in Sanaa. He was released several days later.
"We had a normal life"
Baha’is live in difficult conditions in other countries, such as Egypt and Iraq. But outside of Iran, the degree of persecution they are now facing in Yemen is a relatively new phenomenon. “Before the Houthis arrived, we used to live normal lives as Yemenis. We were part of the whole community,” Karim explained. “As a Yemeni Baha’i, I would participate in all kinds of activities to be someone better and make the community better. We would go to our schools, jobs, do our Baha’i celebrations either in houses or common places. We could invite other friends, even non-Baha’i friends. There was no fear for our lives, for our children’s future.”
Arbitrary arrests did take place in 2008 when former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was still in office. According to al-Olofi, the community spokesperson, who was quoted by the news website Middle East Eye: "The Yemeni government began cracking down on the Baha'is after seeing their increasing attractiveness."
Several Baha’is were arrested and imprisoned at the time. At least three of them were Iranian nationals, and some of them were deported to Iran.
A Yemeni Baha’i named Hamed Bin Haydara was also arrested in 2013. Yemeni authorities alleged that he "attempted to convert Yemeni Muslims and collaborated with Israel," according to a Human Rights Watch statement. He has been in prison since his arrest where he has been tortured and prohibited from communicating with his relatives.
In 2015, the Sanaa Specialized Criminal Court, which came under Houthi control, issued an indictment against Haydara accusing him of having links with Israel. "But most of the charges against him were related to his practice of the Baha'i religion,” according to HRW.
Haydara was sentenced to death by the same court last January. “The judge furthermore called for the dissolution of all Baha’i assemblies, which clearly indicates that Mr. Haydara’s conviction, and the persecution of Baha’is, are solely due to religious beliefs,” Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur, said.
"Promoting peace in times of war"
The situation for Baha’is in Yemen really began to change in 2014 after the Houthis took control of the Yemeni capital. The first mass arrests took place on Aug. 10, 2016 when 65 Baha’is were detained without warrants in Sanaa. The group, including 14 women and 6 minors, had gathered for a community building project. “Armed and hooded agents of the National Security Bureau (NSB), a Yemeni intelligence service that works hand-in-hand with the Houthi armed authorities, broke into a Baha'i youth workshop in Sanaa," Amnesty International said about the event.
Karim was at the meeting and was arrested and taken to a Houthi controlled prison with the rest of the group. "The main accusation was that we – and I quote – ‘are trying to promote peace during a time of war,’” he said of the interrogation he faced. “The problem for the Houthis is that if this ideology is promoted to the youth, the youth will not go to war. And they want many people to go and fight.”
For months, the group was held incommunicado in an unknown location. Karim said that he was not physically abused, but the Houthis used various methods of psychological torture. “They would say things like, ‘You’re gonna be in this prison for a long time. Nobody will ask about you. Your family will not know about you, your wife, your children,’” he recalled.
Most of the arrested Baha’is were eventually released after being forced to sign a written pledge to no longer carry out their cultural and community building activities, according to Karim, who now lives in a secret location for security reasons.
The Houthis receive most of the blame for oppressing Baha’is. But the community is also treated poorly by the Hadi government and the Saudi Arabia and UAE led coalition, according to Osama al-Fakih, a researcher at the Yemeni NGO Mwatana for Human Rights.
According to Mwatana, two Baha’is, including one Iranian national, were arrested in Jan. 2017 by authorities at the airport in Aden, a southern city serving as the “temporary” capital of the Yemeni government. They were later handed over to authorities from the UAE and were "forcefully detained without charge and without being able to communicate with a lawyer until the beginning of September 2017. At that time, they were released right before the 36th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva,” according to Mwatana’s website.
On Nov. 8 this year, Australia, Canada, Germany and the United States issued a joint statement expressing "their deep concerns about the treatment of Baha'is in Yemen, particularly by Houthis in Sanaa.” The statement listed the arbitrary arrests that have taken place since 2016 and called for the immediate release of the detainees. But little progress has been made.
Meanwhile, Karim is worried about his and his children’s futures. "If the international community does not intensify the pressure on the Houthis the persecutions could reach the same level as in Iran," he said.
*Name has been changed
(The original French version of this article was first published in L'Orient-Le Jour on November the 20th)