The Plight of Yemen’s Baha’is
While Yemen’s staggering humanitarian catastrophe has riveted global attention, a serious religious freedom issue lurks beneath the headlines.
On September 29, at court proceedings in Houthi-run Sana’a, 22 Yemeni Baha’is – including a teenaged girl – faced sham charges of apostasy and espionage – accusations that could result in death sentences. The judge denied bail for the five Baha’is present, froze the properties of the accused while the trial proceeded, and ordered the names of 19 of the Baha’is published in a newspaper, further endangering them. Such persecution is a lamentable new variation on an old theme.
For more than 170 years, Baha’is and their forebears in Iran have suffered denial of education, property, and marriage rights, imprisonment, torture, death, and other depredations for their beliefs. Seemingly copy-pasting from Tehran’s timeworn playbook, in March the leader of the Houthis menaced the country’s Baha’i community of 2,000 on national TV with a fusillade of untruths:
- The Baha’i Faith is a “satanic” movement that seeks to “wage a war of doctrine” against Islam (it isn’t and doesn’t).
- “Infidel” Baha’is deny Islam and the prophet (they don’t – Baha’is believe in and respect the prophethood of Muhammad).
- Yemenis should defend their country from Baha’is and others, since “Those who destroy the faith in people are no less evil and dangerous than those who kill people with their bombs.”
A prominent Houthi writer declared: “We will butcher every Baha’i!” The Ministry of Information held a workshop on how to counter the Baha’i “doctrine of war.” A TV program attacked human rights organizations and the Baha’is – even posting names and photographs of individual Yemeni Baha’is.
This rhetoric is lighter fluid over the glowing charcoals of Baha’i persecutions in Yemen.
The ordeal of Yemeni citizen Hamed Kamal Haydara, a Baha’i of Iranian descent, whose father settled in Yemen in the 1940s, frames these troubles. In October 2013, Haydara was accused of working for the Houthi rebels (who later seized power in the country’s north). Evidently, this was because he helped organize a Baha’i-inspired youth event focused on community service. Later, a news report scurrilously claimed that he was transporting the youth to Beirut and Iran for military training (presumably in support of the Shia Houthis). If the consequences weren’t so dangerous, such allegations would be risible.
In December 2013, Haydara was arrested in Balhaf in southern Yemen. Since then, the charges against him have included a litany of myths about Baha’is: spying for Israel, trying to convert Yemenis by paying them, violating the laws of the country and Islam, and not believing in Islam and the prophet. Moreover, Haydara was accused of trying to establish a Baha’i homeland on his birthplace, Yemen’s Socotra Island, in the Arabian sea, where he owned land and which the government apparently considered sensitive.
Haydara’s time in prison since his arrest has included numerous tribulations. According to the Baha’i International Community, after he was first incarcerated, he was beaten for 45 days with a metal belt and slapped so much that he lost hearing in one ear. He lost over sixty pounds during this period. While blindfolded, he was forced to sign 19 pieces of paper – admitting to false charges – with his thumbprint (a judge later tossed out that evidence). The prospect of extradition to Iran deeply worried Haydara and his family. Haydara’s health has deteriorated during his incarceration.
In January 2018, a judge sentenced Haydara to death by hanging because of his association with the Baha’i World Center in Haifa, Israel (where early Baha’is were exiled eighty years before the establishment of the modern Israeli state), and ordered his property confiscated. The judge also ordered the shuttering of elected Baha’i institutions in the country (Baha’is have no clergy; democratically elected bodies oversee the Faith’s activities).
More persecutions have taken place. In May 2014, the head of Yemen’s National Security Agency introduced charges – not yet enforced – targeting the Yemeni Baha’i community, including revoking the citizenship of some Baha’is and deporting Haydara’s family. In August 2016, authorities arrested 60 attendees – including children – at a community service program. In October 2017, Baha’is worldwide marked the bicentenary of the birth of the Faith’s prophet-founder. In Sana’a, a group of Baha’is held a small celebratory gathering at the home of one of those detained, Walid Ayyash. Security forces rammed an armored vehicle into the door of the house, burst in, opened fire, and detained Ayyash’s brother. Four additional Yemeni Baha’is are imprisoned.
It seems as if the Houthis aim to intimidate and decimate the Baha’is through a “slicing the sausage” approach – a death sentence here, arbitrary arrests there – in hopes that onlookers won’t catch on to this pre-genocide.
Sympathetic Yemenis and observers have expressed their support for Yemen’s Baha’is, including the local Yemeni Initiative for Defending Baha’is. In July 2018, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom decried the persistent pattern of mistreatment of Yemen’s Baha’is, as did in July. The Italian, German, Netherlands, and UK governments have expressed serious concerns over the most recent persecutions. On October 10, a group of UN independent human rights advocates called for the immediate release of the Baha’is just detained. On November 9, U.S. Embassy Sana’a, along with the governments of Australia, Canada, and Germany issued a statement of concern on the issue – one of several thus far to come from the U.S. government.
Meanwhile, will the Baha’is just charged share Haydara’s grim, nebulous fate?