HL Deb 10 February 1982 vol 427 cc244-57

7.46 p.m.

Lord McNair rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are aware of the persecution being suffered by the Bahá.'is in Iran and, if so, whether they will use their influence to help these unfortunate people.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so perhaps I owe the House not an apology for its wording so much as an explanation. I am, after all, asking a Question to which I already know the answer. I am perfectly aware that Her Majesty's Government do know what is going on, and I am not going to suggest that they have failed, that they are failing, or that they ever would fail to do anything they possibly could to help the Bahá'is and put an end to their mistreatment So why, it could be asked, put the Question? Because, my Lords, I felt that this was a subject on which this House could not decently remain silent any longer.

We are all to a certain extent the prisoners of our own procedures. We do not in this House have the facility of the Early Day Motion. Nor are we in the habit of passing declaratory resolutions as is done, for example, in the European Parliament and in the Australian Senate, to mention only two of the assemblies which have collectively condemned the persecution of the Bahá'is. It seemed to me, in other words, that the Unstarred Question was the most appropriate available medium through which we could express ourselves on a subject which has been causing some of us great concern for a long time.

Next I must not forget that I am forbidden by the Rules to thank participants at the end of this debate, and that I must therefore do it at the beginning. I am absolutely certain that my Baha'i friends would wish me to include their thanks with mine. I hope it will not seem invidious to anybody if I say how particularly delighted I was when I heard that the noble Lord, Lord Stewart of Fulham, was to speak. The Bahá'is take no part in party politics. f am never sure whether to envy them or not. Their religion forbids them to do this. We are most of us fairly frequent offenders against this injunction, but not, I hope, tonight. Surely the best way we can demonstrate this is by having contributions from all corners of the House, as I think we shall, and who better could possibly speak from the Labour Benches than their most distinguished and widely respected ex-Foreign Secretary. To all participants, and to those who have stayed to listen, I say, thank you.

I shall not consume your Lordships' time with a long analysis of the historical background to these events. To anybody who wants to find out about that, I strongly recommend a report which will be published very soon by the Minority Rights Group; I have seen the proofs and it is first class.

For tonight's purposes, I hope it will be enough to say that the adherents of the Bahá'i faith, which was first revealed in the 19th century, have been prone to persecution off and on from the very beginning. Their prophet, Bahá'ulláh, knew in his own lifetime and on his own person cruelties and hardships which would quickly have broken any other man, yet he lived to the age of 75, and lived to write, so it is claimed, as much as the total volume of scriptures revealed by all previous divine manifestations.

I shall confine myself to the events since the fall of the Shah and since the assumption of power by the present authorities in Iran. In that time, we believe that 111 Bahá'is have been judicially executed in Iran. An unknown number, additionally, have disappeared or fallen victim to lynch law. This loss of life is the most dramatic and tragic aspect of the problem, but it is far from being the whole of the story. Shrines and cemeteries have been desecrated, private Bahá'i property has been confiscated, people have been dismissed from their jobs and expelled from universities, travel restrictions have been imposed and there is in fact what looks increasingly like a systematic and carefully-thought-out attempt to stamp out the Bahá'i faith by making life for Bahá'is in Iran unlivable.

I may be asked what is the scale of this tragedy, what are the numbers. Although there are now Bahá'i communities in nearly every country of the world, their faith was first promulgated or revealed in Iran and the faith has today in that country about 300,000 believers, which makes them the most numerous religious minority in Iran. Moreover, unlike the Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians, they receive no recognition, are granted no rights, under the constitution; they are effectively outlaws, fair game for persecution.

What is the answer of the authorities to the charges which I am making? It would he unfair not to examine their point of view. I think they would say that nobody has been executed for being a Bahá'i, while they would admit that a certain number of people who coincidentally happened to be Bahá'is had perhaps been executed for other offences—for being agents of the West, of Zionism, or America, for subversive acts or anti-state activities, for immorality or for having supported the Shah. But those accusations do not stand up to a moment's impartial examination; they are false.

The often repeated allegation that Bahá'is are agents of Israel stems from the historical accident that their headquarters is in Haifa. It was established in Haifa when Haifa was an obscure place in the Ottoman Empire, long before the British mandate in Palestine and even longer before the emergence of the State of Israel. And what about their alleged support of the Shah? Bahá'is are enjoined by their religion to take no part at all in divisive politics but to obey the laws of whatever government they find themselves living under. That means that they can always be accused of having supported the previous régime, in the negative sense of not having actively opposed it.

I suggest that those specious charges fail to conceal the fact that the basis for this persecution is not political but theological. In the field of theology, as behoves a Humanist who is to be followed by a bishop, I tread very delicately. As I understand it, however, the misfortune of the Bahá'is is that in the eyes of fundamentalist Shí'ite Moslems, their faith counts as a heresy. Although they, too, revere Mohammed and study the Koran, just as they respect and study the scriptures and teachings of Moses, Jesus Christ and Buddha, they fall foul of the Shí'ite belief that it was Mohammed who made the final and, as it were, definitive revelation of the divine will, because Bahá'is believe that their prophet, Bahá'ulláh, 1,200 years later, had an equal claim to divine inspiration.

I do not think it would be fitting for me to dispute the right of any religion to nominate its own heretics. Theological disputation is a highly respectable activity and theologians are believed to be unusually adept in the dialectical arts of argument. But when argument gives way to an attempt at either forcible conversion or physical extinction, then I suggest that our common humanity entitles, indeed requires, us to protest and condemn. Moreover, if this were not a case of religious persecution, how would it come about that so many of the Bahá'is who have faced these trumped-up charges have been offered aquittal in exchange for the recantation of their faith, and have refused the offer?In the most literal meaning of the word, this is martyrdom, not in the time of the Roman Empire, not in the Middle Ages, but in the 1980s.

People may wish to know what is this faith for which men and women are choosing to die. I will leave it to the right reverend Prelate to answer that question in more detail. I would only say that, to my, I hope, unbiased mind, the religion of the Bahá'is, asserting, as it does, the oneness of the human family and the oneness of God, revealing His will from time to time through his prophets, of whom Bahá'ulláh is not necessarily the last, seems the most comprehensive and the least dogmatically exclusive religion of which I have heard. The moral precepts by which Bahá'is conduct their daily lives should also commend them to us all. It was extraordinarily enlightened, in the middle of the 19th century and in the Middle East, for a religious writer to attach the importance which Bahá'ulláh attached to education, and in particular, because of their influence on children, to the education of women. In short, of all the peoples of this earth, I can think of none less deserving of persecution than the believers of the Bahá'i faith.

That brings me to the most difficult, the most important, and the final section of my speech: the question, what can we do? It is all too easy to lapse into despair and to conclude that the people in charge in Iran today are totally impervious to outside influence or to world opinion. But the Bahá'is themselves do not believe that, and we should surely match our hopes with theirs. They believe that there are already signs that the many representations which have been made are beginning to have some effect, if only in a greater willingness on the part of the authorities to defend themselves, however unconvincingly. If that is so, surely we must redouble our efforts in every suitable form to bring home to those authorities how they alienate the sympathies of the world, and in particular of would-be friends of Iran, by these outbursts of appalling intolerance.

I shall not be surprised if the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, makes the point that a direct bilateral approach from Her Majesty's Government to the Iranian Government might merely fuel their suspicions that Bahá'is are all agents of the West, and might therefore be counter-productive. That might be so, and I would confidently leave it to the noble Lord and his colleagues to judge such a sensitive and difficult question.

However, if the direct path is dangerous, there might be indirect paths which we could follow, through the United Nations, for example, or through the Commonwealth Secretariat. If the Moslem countries of the Commonwealth could support the actions of some other Islamic countries in urging moderation, that might be most helpful, and I hope that later speakers may have other suggestions.

My Lords, I have spoken too long, and you have listened very patiently. I should like to end not by urging the Government—they do not need urging—but by saying that I am quite certain that they will lose no opportunity of helping these admirable and endangered people who are facing a threat which, I fear, grows more terrible day by day.

8.3 p.m.

Lord Stewart of Fulham

My Lords, I am very glad that the noble Lord has raised this question, because we live in an age of persecution of many kinds and in many countries, and, as has been suggested, sometimes we feel that if we try to protest about it, we shall make the situation worse. I do not believe that to be true. On several occasions when I held office I met people who had managed to get out of tyrannical countries and, without exception, they said that one thing that lifted up their hearts was the knowledge that in free countries voices were raised on their behalf, that their suffering, misery and danger was not completely disregarded by the world.

Furthermore, if we always assume that the right reaction to situations such as this is one of sorrowful silence, we gradually move in our own minds towards thinking that it does not really matter. We ought to realise that there are in the world a great many evils that we cannot prevent, but we ought to make it quite clear that the fact that we cannot prevent them does not mean that by silence we ought to condone them.

Therefore, I believe that the noble Lord, Lord McNair, was entirely right to raise this matter; and there is I think one other reason to mention in this respect. It can no longer be said of persecution that it is purely the internal affair of any country. All members of the United Nations are bound, as countries were not in past centuries, to observe at least certain rules about human rights. The proper treatment of their own subjects is one of their international obligations, and having asserted that principle in the world, we do not want to let it pass into desuetude.

I agree very much with the noble Lord, Lord McNair, about the nature of the Bahá'i people and of their faith. For one who has been brought up in Western religious tradition, knowing the range of beliefs to be found among all those who call themselves Christians, it is rather difficult to put oneself inside the mind of an Eastern faith. But my own impression—I do not want to put it stronger than this—is that studying, reading about, the Bahá'is they reminded me very much, not necessarily in precise teachings, but in temperament, of the Society of Friends. There was the same gentleness, the same rejection of force, the same toleration; and it is certainly true that it has been a firm belief of theirs for a long time that it is wrong to use force against the temporal power, that indeed they will give almost everything in the way of obedience to the temporal power, everything except the renunciation of their own faith. Bearing in mind who is to follow me in the debate, I speak with great trepidation, but I think I am right in saying that that is very much how St. Paul told early Christians to behave.

Therefore, it is extraordinary that against these people the charge of political subversion be raised, and one notices, too, that Bahá'i communities are to be found all over the world. I do not believe that there has been a single country, excepting the charges now made in Iran, where Bahá'i communities have been accused of any kind of treason, disloyalty, or lawlessness, or of being anything other than good, reliable, law-abiding citizens.

Is there anything that can be done about it? It is not easy, and I would not dream of pressing anything on the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, because we know how difficult is the situation at present between this country and Iran. I would only ask him to consider whether, with the help of other countries, some kind of approach can be made. I take it also that I am right in supposing that if anyone of the Bahá'i faith manages to get here from Iran and wants to stay here, no obstacle would be placed in the way of his doing so. I believe that there are a few who have managed to do that. We have generally taken the view that when people are obviosuly in danger of their lives for their faith they can come here. I trust that I am right in assuming that that is so. I am sure that we shall all wish the noble Lord well in any other steps that he might be able to take to help these people and to remove from the world at least the blot of this particular persecution.

8.9 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Guildford

My Lords, I count it a great privilege to support the noble Lord, Lord McNair, in encouraging the Government to use their influence to help the Bahá'is now facing vehement persecution in Iran. Without any hesitation I would stand by the speeches which have just been made by the noble Lords, Lord McNair and Lord Stewart of Fulham, and associate myself with the descriptions which they have given of the Bahá'i faith and of the reasons why we should be concerned about them and their situation in Iran today.

However, in my own speech I wish to speak a little from the religious aspects of things, although I know this is somewhat delicate and dangerous because I shall appear as a Christian speaking about Islam. I should like to assure the House that I do not speak from any anti-Islamic point of view; and perhaps I should say by way of personal explanation that only this past week I spent some days in Paris at a meeting of the Conference of European Churches Islam in Europe Committee, of which I have the honour to be chairman. Almost the whole of our meeting was taken up with measures to help the Churches in Europe recognise the great contributions which the Moslem communities are now making to Europe, both in West and East, and to help the Churches respond positively and generously towards them. So in speaking now my concern is primarily for the Bahá'is, but it is also to encourage the Iranian authorities (if it is possible to do so) to act in a way which I think it might well be suggested is in line with the principles and development of Islam.

Many noble Lords will be aware of the status of the Bahá'is in Islamic law. The holy Koran speaks with approbation about the so-called People of the Book, those who follow the one true God and a revelation given to a prophet named in the Koran. Such people are distinguished in Islamic law from other religions and given protected status. Principally they are Jews and Christians, though as the noble Lord, Lord McNair, has said, they also include Zoroastrians. The People of the Book are to be treated with humanity, not disturbed in their public worship; and one of the Traditions of the Prophet Mohammed said: He who wrongs a Jew or a Christian will have myself as his accuser on the day of judgment". Unfortunately, the Bahá'is do not fall into the category of the People of the Book, and this is why they have suffered persecution since their establishment in 1844.

Not only do they lack recognition in the Koran, but they declare their founder, Baá'u'lláh, to have revealed God's Truth, thus contradicting Moslem belief that Mohammed was the last and seal of the prophets, the Prophet par excellence. So the founder himself and many of his followers, who were originally Moslems, laid themselves open to the charge of apostasy, for which the penalty, according to some traditionalists, is death. But I would very seriously question whether that law can be applied to Bahá'is today, in succeeding generations. The point has been made that they are law-abiding citizens, and I would think it could be argued that they do not therefore fall within that law.

At this point I should like to quote from a Moslem Commentary on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, published in Iran in 1966, during the reign of the Shah, by the leader of a Sufi sect, Sultan Hussein Tabandeh. I read it to your Lordships because it will indicate the very severe restrictions upon freedom of religion which conservative Islam imposes. This is the commentary on Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, regarding the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Sultan Hussein Tabandeh says this: This Article is largely acceptable but not without difficulties. Freedom of thought, of conscience and of belief is allowable to the extent that it does not clash with the Koran or with Islamic Canon Law … Followers of a religion of which the basis is contrary to Islam, like those who demand Islam's extirpation, have no official rights to freedom of religion in Islamic countries or under an Islamic government … In Islam, religion and politics are not separated: nor can the government be divorced from the official religion. Hence any propoganda for another religion must be prohibited as being contrary both to Canon Law and to State Law". I would finish with this last quotation, which comes in the course of a long chapter on this problem, in which it says: The apostate whose parents are Muslims, and who was born into the Islamic tradition, but after coming of age turns from his religion. For him there is no repentence, since he has deserted his natal faith. He is like a diseased member of the body politic, gangrenous, incurable, fit only for amputation and must be executed". I bring this quotation to your Lordships because this is a very respectable book, well-publicised, and translated into English; and it indicates, I think, the difficulties of the situation about which we are speaking tonight. It emphasises, I think, the very grave restrictions on freedom of religion which are imposed by conservative Islam and which we see operating in contemporary Iran and in other Moslem countries.

I hope our Government will continue to support the UNESCO resolution of 2nd September with regard to the Bahá'is, and its implementation; but here I take up a point made by Lord McNair in his suggestions as to what might be done. I should like to widen this to suggest that the influence of our Government, both in the United Nations and in direct country-to-country contacts, should be directed towards encouraging as far as they are able (and with great delicacy, because one is aware of the difficulties) the development of more liberal tendencies within Islam—a development which is supported by growing numbers of influential Moslems. I would think this appertains not only to Iran but to other countries which have very close contacts with us in the Arabian peninsula and in Western Asia.

There is a kind of general tendency, I think, that we should be aware of and seek to give some support to, because I believe that such a development would recover a perspective which I think it can be argued is emphasised in the holy Koran itself but which has been overlaid by subsequent tradition. Indeed, the essence of the point I am trying to make is to emphasise that it is tradition as it has developed which has caused the difficulties. There is a very significant difference between the provisions of the Traditions for the treatment of minorities and the assertion of Islamic authority and, on the other hand, the emphasis which the holy Koran itself places upon the divine punishment which befalls unbelievers and apostates alike in the world to come.

I ask your Lordships' leave to quote from the Koran (16.106), which is very pertinent to this, as your Lordships will see in a moment, I hope: Those that believe not in the signs of God, God will not guide: there awaits them a painful punishment … Because they have preferred the present life over the world to come, they are the heedless ones; without a doubt, in the world to come, they will he the losers … Summon to the way of your Lord and dispute with them by that which is better ". That implies that religion's task is to tell the truth, but punishment should be left to God himself. That again comes in another chapter, and I could quote many more, but this one will suffice: If there is a party who believe in the Message, and a party who believe not, be patient till God shall judge between us; He is the best of judges". So the general tenor of the Koran itself is that the proclamation of Islam and its triumph depend upon its essential truth rather than upon compulsion, and that the consequences of unbelief are in the hands of God, to be administered by him. The defence of truth is safe in God's hands.

To take it a little further, in one of the most sublime passages of the Koran—the famous Throne Passage, which sets out the majesty and sovereignty of God and distinguishes believers from unbelievers—it is stated quite categorically and unambiguously: There is no compulsion in matters of religion, la'ikraha fid-din". When Islam is most true to its own genius, its will to let God be God, its followers have shown moderation and restraint towards those who have differed from them. Only by tolerance can Islam demonstrate its confidence in the final truth of the revelation that it claims to have received.

I would then, secondly, argue that if the Islamic nations are to play their rightful and honoured role in the commonwealth of nations, they will best do so on the basis of a tolerance which goes beyond some of the excesses that we find in the Traditions. I think that we should accept that there are many influential Moslems in the Western world and elsewhere who would press that the Shari'a law, which is quoted in defence of some of these actions, can itself be adjusted to meet contemporary needs. I will not weary your Lordships with a dissertation on Islamic law but I could substantiate that in other circumstances.

As one example of the kind of developments which are taking place, let me refer to the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights made by the Islamic Council of Europe in September of last year. Your Lordships will see the relevance of this to the Bahá'i situation in Iran. It is produced by a Moslem organisation representing a great number of Moslems in Europe and with close links with Moslem countries outisde Europe. It has been set out, printed and is readily available. Paragraph (x) on the Rights of Minorities reads as follows:

  1. "(a) The Koranic principle, 'There is no compulsion In religion' shall govern the religious rights of non-Muslim minorities.
  2. "(b) In a Muslim country religious minorities shall have the choice to be governed in respect of their civil and personal matters by Islamic Law, or by their own laws".
Later in Section XII, the Declaration states: Every person has the right to freedom of conscience and worship in accordance with his religious beliefs". My Lords, what I have tried to do (and perhaps it may have seemed that I wandered from the point but perhaps you will see the relevance now) is to say that within the Koran itself the punishment of apostates and unbelievers is reserved to God; it is not to be usurped by man. This is the fundamental principle. The statement in the Koran that I quoted: "There is no compulsion in matters of religion" is a totally categoric, fundamental statement. Then I would go on and say that in the Tradition, as it has been expounded and developed in Moslem countries, there has been a hardening, a reversion, from the sense of tolerance which at the time of the Prophet was extended to the "People of the Book" but by analogy should be extended to others.

There is a new movement throughout the Islamic world seeking to say, "Let us go back to the fundamental principles". If the Islamic nations are to play their part in the commonwealth of nations, then I would plead and urge them that they must understand this principle of tolerance which is embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is only thus that they can play their part.

Therefore, I say let us not simply see this as an isolated instance in Iran, serious though it is—and I believe that it is one of the most profound denials of human rights on grounds of religion in the world today. But I would plead that we use such influence we have to enable Moslem countries in general to develop this tolerance towards others which I believe is part of their own assertion of the sovereignty of God.

I do not speak only about the Moslem countries. I believe that all religions today must learn that the people who do not share the beliefs or practices of any particular religion (other than the one professed by the people concerned) also understand the reality of prayer, have a sense of the presence of God and know His truth; and that we shall only build a tolerant and peaceful world if the religions of the world can learn that.

I have not attempted to make any assessment of the Bahá'i faith, although I share the description already given of it. I do not think that it would be desirable for me to make a kind of profit and loss account of its values. It is now one of the most widespread world religions although its members are few; and there are now 167 Bahá'i assemblies in the United Kingdom—mostly of British-born people. My support for the noble Lord, Lord McNair, derives solely from my deep conviction that freedom of religion is one of the most prized of all human rights, and that to deny it on whatever grounds to any group is to diminish the humanity not of the oppressed but of the oppressor.

I refuse to believe that Islam, which, true to its origins has a great tradition of moderation and tolerance, must persist in denying that human right to the Baháis, who have suffered so much. I believe that it can be only to the honour of Iran if its Government accords toleration to those who are not Moslems. I beg to encourage our Government—as they have promised to do in a letter to the British Council of Churches—to use their influence in the United Nations to the utmost on behalf of the Bahá'is; and also to consider some of the points I have made about the whole Islamic world in their dealings with other countries. Only on that broad basis shall we eventually be able to build that world in which there is the real tolerance that we desperately need.

8.28 p.m.

Lord Whaddon

My Lords, may I add my voice in thanks to the noble Lord, Lord McNair, who, I think, does a great service in raising this topic. There may be those who say, "What is the House of Lords doing, concerning itself with some obscure sect thousands of miles away?" If one realises what is going on in Iran, it would take a very hard heart to ignore the plight of the Bahá'is. It seems to me also that we have a phase of history where religious influences are strongly on the increase and are having increased effect on secular affairs. We ignore the developments in religious spheres at our peril. Certainly persecution on religious or political grounds is a grave offence against God and man. It is a most virulent infection which is all too liable to spread.

We are not without experience of its effects in our own country. I was showing some visitors around Westminster Hall and looking at the spot where Sir Thomas More was tried. It is not so long ago, I thought, since we saw similar things in this building. In Ireland today religious bigotry is at the root of many of the problems involving the killing of our own people and our own troops. We ignore these things at our peril. It is right that this subject should be ventilated tonight. The Bahá'is are an outstanding example of a peaceful, innocent people; and the persecution is revolting to any but the most callous conscience.

My Lords, what can we do? There are all too few practical measures that can be taken. One must congratulate the Council of Europe on the resolution that they passed last week expressing their concern and revulsion about the situation in Iran. Perhaps the Government could consider whether the United Nations provides another forum where this question may usefully be ventilated and raise the matter there. The noble Lord, Lord Stewart of Fulham, mentioned the Commonwealth and particularly the Moslem countries of the Commonwealth. Certainly they may have channels of communication into Iran which are not open to the rest of us. I am quite sure that the Government will also consider whether this route could be useful.

One other channel has not been mentioned tonight but it could be extremely important. That is the BBC World Service. My own experience in countries where persecutions of one sort or another have been carried out, such as Greece during the Junta and in certain parts of east Europe—was that the BBC World Service was of most tremendous importance and was listened to with very great respect. Word spread very rapidly among the affected population. I understand that the Farsi broadcasts of the BBC are listened to by large numbers in Iran. Perhaps the Government could use their good offices to suggest—I know that they cannot dictate—that the feelings of revulsion in our country might be made clear in the news coverage. This would be a measure of moral support which might be of great comfort to those suffering from this persecution at this time. Those of us who have religious faith should certainly remember them in our prayers and make it known to the Bahá'is that we are doing so.

The lesson of history is that persecution never succeeds in suppressing. Indeed, persecution degrades the persecutor. It only ennobles the victim. If we can get a message across at all to the Shí'a community, it is that what they appear to be trying to do—the elimination of this sect—is directly counter-productive, and that the more they persecute, the greater the standing of and sympathy for the Bahá'is in other countries. From the blood of every martyr there will undoubtedly spring 1,000 new adherents to the Bahá'i beliefs. If they realise this, they may not be so keen to produce new martyrs.

For ourselves in this country there is a lesson. This country has become multiracial and is very rapidly becoming multi-creedal, with new creeds which have only recently been seen in this country. Religious beliefs are extremely important in determining what happens in the secular world. The right reverend Prelate very rightly called for tolerance, mutual respect and conscience. That is absolutely right. We must learn this lesson.

The present trend towards ecumenism among the Christian religions will have to expand and flower into universalism as Britain becomes more involved in other religions of the world. Noble Lords are no doubt familiar with the eight Beatitudes of Christianity. I would suggest that perhaps the time has come for us to consider adding a ninth: Blessed be he who admits that he just might be wrong".

8.35 p.m.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I want to start first by echoing the thanks to the noble Lord for raising this matter. But I also want to emphasise that Her Majesty's Government are indeed fully aware of the problems which the Bahá'i community in Iran faces and we are deeply concerned about reports of recent developments there which suggest a more widespread persecution of that community. We are doing what we can to bring home to the Iranian authorities our concern at the state of affaris. We do not wish to interfere in the internal affairs of Iran, but we cannot remain silent when the elementary human rights of a small community are abused.

While our concern and horror at what is happening is justifiable, it is right that we should also try to understand the background against which this persecution is taking place. It would be wrong to imagine that it is a consequence of the recent revolution in that country, though undoubtedly the position of the Bahá'is has been aggravated by the turmoil that political change has brought about.

There are between 150,000 and 300,000 Bahá'is in Iran, and they constitute the country's largest religious minority. Bahá'ism grew out of Shí'a Islam, the predominant religion of modern Iran. It began in the mid-19th century, initially as a development of radical religious ideas, and for a time was tolerated as a dissident but integral element within Islam. But its followers soon made demands that were impossible to reconcile with the traditional beliefs of Islam, and the Islamic community of Iran condemned Bahá'ism as a form of apostasy. Since in Islamic eyes apostasy is tantamount to wilful denial of God, it is easy to see how the Iranians have come to regard the Bahá'is as very much different from other religious minorities. As a result, the Bahá'is have never been officially tolerated in Iran: they were persecuted throughout the 19th century and even under the Pahlavis were subject to sporadic harassment. The first Iranian constitution enacted in 1906 made specific provision for the recognition of religious minorities, and listed as such the Jews, Christians of all denominations and Zoroastrians. That was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord McNair. In this sense, the new revolutionary constitution is no different from that of 1906.

There are many features of Bahá'i beliefs which pious Moslems find offensive but which we in the West would regard as unobjectionable, even desirable. For example, the Bahá'is insist on the oneness of all religions and on the equal status to be accorded to women. In addition, communities of Bahá'is have, through their tendency to cling together and support each other—to their mutual advantage—incited the dislike and envy of the wider society in which they live.

The recent revolution in Iran has not changed this position. In the months leading to the revolution and in the period since, the Bahá'is have suffered a large number of attacks on property and persons. Such attacks are primarily the work of individuals or of groups acting independently, often incited by the Moslem clergy. They are the natural scapegoat for a society rent by revolution, war and religious revival. The fact that they have co-religionists in the West and that their holy places, the Tomb of Baháullíh, is at Haifa in Israel lends a spurious plausibility to the accusations that they are spies or the agents of Zionism and imperialism.

The Iranian authorities have said that if Bahá'is are executed in Iran it is not because of their beliefs, but because of their activities against the state. Yet the Baháis declare that it is a fundamental tenet of their faith that they respect the authority of the political régime under which they live, and their followers are enjoined to support the Government of the day and to take no part in the political process. It is difficult to see how such people can be the subversive and destructive element that the Iranian authorities would have them be.

I have tried to set in historical perspective the maltreatment being suffered by the Bahá'i community in Iran. We can no way condone this. Our concern is shared by many other countries. There is wide-spread revulsion throughout the world at the treatment suffered by this inoffensive community. We, with our fellow members of the European Community, have taken a number of steps to draw the attention of the Iranian Government to international concern about their policy towards the Bahá'is.

We have already taken action at a high level in the United Nations. The United Kingdom expert at the United Nations Sub-Committee on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities cosponsored the resolution which has passed on 9th September condemning the persecution of the Bahá'is in Iran.

On 28th October last year, our Permanent Representative at the United Nations specifically referred to the Bahá'is in a statement on the draft declaration of the United Nations General Assembly calling for the elimination of religious intolerance. The declaration was adopted on 25th November.

The Ten have also made a démarche to the Iranian Government in Tehran on behalf of the Baháis. The démarche took place on 31st January and had the additional backing of Australia, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland. The text of the démarche stressed to the Iranians the extent of international concern about their policy towards the Bahá'is and asked that the Iranians henceforth consider the Bahá'is as a religious minority.

I have the text of that démarche here and perhaps it would be appropriate if I were to read it to your Lordships; it is not particularly long. It reads as follows: The Governments of the Ten and of the following countries"— those are the ones I have referred to— present their compliments to the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs". That is the normal opening in these documents. It continues: Without wishing to interfere in the internal affairs of Iran, the Governments of the countries listed above wish to draw the attention of the Iranian Government to the fact that the recent executions of leading members of the Baha'i religion in Iran have been a source of profound disquiet to them and of great concern to public opinion in their countries. In these circumstances, the Governments of the countries listed above wish to draw attention to the relevant provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and those of the two 1966 Convenants on Human Rights to which Iran has subscribed. The Governments wish to receive from the Iranian Government assurances to the effect that those provisions will also be respected in the case of members of the Baha'i religion in Iran, so that they are able to respond to the concern voiced in their respective countries. We shall continue to take action at the highest level of the United Nations—

Lord Stewart of Fulham

My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord? Has any reply been received so far to the démarche?

Lord Trefgarne

No, my Lords; no reply has yet been received. It was delivered only on 31st January, and I think such a reply would not in any event be expected by this time. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights is currently in session in Geveva and indeed the United Kingdom Mission to that organisation is led by my noble friend Lord Colville of Culross. Our Commissioners are considering with our partners what action to take which would be in the best interest of the Bahá'is in Iran. We shall certainly take every opportunity in the future to press home to the Iranian Government our concern about the situation of the Bahá'is in that country.

There have also been some bilateral representations to the Iranians. As your Lordships will know, we do not at present have an Embassy, as such, in Tehran. Our interests are looked after by what is called the British Interests Section of the Swedish Embassy. We have a number of officials in that section and, at our meetings with senior officials of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and also with the Iranian Embassy in London, we have stressed the public concern in this country about the persecution of the Bahá'is. As I mentioned earlier, of course, the Iranians are signatories to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which they signed in 1966.

I want to emphasise that the Government share the concern that has been expressed tonight at the unhappy circumstances which afflict these unfortunate people. I hope your Lordships will agree that the action we have taken is appropriate and I also very much hope that this action will bear fruit in the short or medium term.