The scapegoating of Iran's Baha'is
Oppressive regimes attack human rights on two levels. The most obvious assault, as we have seen in Iran in recent months, aims at suppressing political opponents and protest.
But history teaches us that we need to worry about a secondary level of attack as well, the kind that takes place in the shadows.
That's the persecution directed at weak segments of the population targeted for special repression, the old and sickening story in which minority religious or ethnic groups are singled out as scapegoats of the state, blamed for all its troubles.
This is why we need to be very concerned now for the safety of Iran's approximately 300,000 Baha'is, followers of the gentle, internationalist Baha'i faith, the country's largest minority religion.
The Baha'i religion has been officially banned in Iran since 1979. But now, in a textbook case of scapegoating, Iran's theocratic leaders are blaming the Baha'is for stirring up all the unrest sweeping the country today.
They are even accusing them of stockpiling firearms, which seems ludicrous given the peaceful nature of the religion.
But in an ominous nod to even more persecution ahead, Tehran argues that the Baha'is are doing this in conjunction with Israel, which is really directing the whole conspiracy.
The Baha'i seven
The potential for "cleansing," which is inherent in this kind of scapegoating, is why it is so important for the international community to stay on top of a trial that just started in Tehran:
Seven leaders of the Baha'i National Spiritual Assembly are charged with insulting Islam, spreading propaganda against the state, spying for Israel and, for good measure, "spreading corruption on Earth."
These charges not only carry the death penalty but seem designed to stir up maximum anti-Baha'i hatred in the general population.
The accused, whose innocence has been loudly proclaimed by many international human rights groups, have already endured years of psychological terror.
Since their arrest in the spring of 2008 they've been held in Tehran's notorious Evin prison, often in solitary confinement. For the first year, they were without access to lawyers or even formal charges.
This week, the accused were finally brought before what appears to be a show trial with a pre-ordained ending.
Observers were barred from the court while cameras from the state-controlled media were ushered inside. Never a comforting sign in a dictatorship.
In protest, Diane Alai, a Baha'i representative to the United Nations in Geneva, noted that "Baha'is are by the most basic principles of their faith committed to absolute nonviolence.
"Any charge that there might have been weapons or 'live rounds' in their homes is simply and completely unbelievable."
This trial, she insisted, is really "the trial of an entire religious community, and is an attempt to further intimidate and ostracize all Iranian Baha'is simply because they hold a different religious viewpoint from those in power."
World's youngest religion
With an estimated six million members worldwide, the Baha'i faith is said to be the world's youngest independent religion.
And, in this, Iran may be counting on the fact that Baha'ism is relatively little known in the West and therefore not likely to garner much attention in any case.
Founded by a Persian nobleman in the 1860s, the religion believes he is the most recent in a line of prophets that includes Abraham, Buddha, Zoroaster, Christ and Muhammad, a tenet that is viewed as heresy by Muslim fundamentalists.
Almost since its beginning, there have been sporadic outbreaks of violence against Baha'i followers in Iran and discrimination was rampant. Baha'i literature was banned, marriages were not recognized and followers were denied public service jobs.
Since the Islamic Republic of Iran came to power in 1979, however, persecution has taken on an even more threatening form.
More than 200 Baha'is have been executed or assassinated, hundreds have been imprisoned, and holy places have been destroyed or confiscated.
This suggests a systematic effort to drive Baha'is from the country altogether, which is why this trial is feared to be just the start of a much wider wave of persecution unless international protests can make Tehran back off.
This week, Canada added its voice to many countries, notably the U.S. and European nations condemning the trial.
"It is deplorable that these individuals were detailed on the sole basis of their faith and have been denied a fair trail," Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon, protested in a statement.
"Iranian officials have recently made statements linking the seven to political unrest. These are unfair accusations and cause concern for the safety and well-being of the seven Baha'is and of all those unjustly detained in Iran."
Going on to call this a "troubling trend," Cannon displays classic Canadian diplomatic bureaucratese at its most milquetoast.
What he really should be saying is that this is a horrifying development for all those who care about human rights in the world.
Both the European Union and the UN have strongly condemned Iran's persecution of minority religions and ethnic groups, and they expressed particular unease over the current treatment of Baha'is.
Given the hardline intransigence of the Iranian leadership, not to mention its theological fundamentalism, you have to wonder if protests from outside will do any good.
But as York University's Howard Adelman, one of Canada's most respected human rights campaigners wrote this week about the trial:
"We must raise our voices and cry out against the calumnies of this regime not because we will influence its behaviour — I'm convinced we won't — but because it's our duty to speak truth to power even as power tramps on truth and persecutes the almost forgotten first victims of Iran's Islamic Revolution."
The other truth here is that, for too long, the world hasn't listened as Baha'is have struggled to explain the plight of their members in Iran.
It is time we finally focus serious attention on this trial and on the wider and steadily increasing persecution that it represents.