GENEVA -- Last March, after being threatened twice, once by anti-Baha'i graffiti at his workplace and then by a hate-filled letter, a 53-year-old Baha'i businessman in Shiraz, Iran, was chained to a tree, doused with gasoline, and assaulted by an unknown assailants who threw lighted matches at him.
Fortuitously, none of the four matches that were tossed at the man ignited the deadly fuel. The first failed to light, the second went out immediately, a third hit his clothes but did not spark the gas, and a fourth fell harmless to the ground. At that point, the assailants--apparently nervous--jumped back in their car and fled, shortly before neighbors arrived and freed the victim.
The entire incident, from the extreme nature of its assault to the neighborly rescue, offers a striking glimpse of the general situation facing Iranian Baha' is today as they strive to practice their religious beliefs in the land where their religion was born.
In recent months, Iran's 300,000-member Baha'i community has faced a wave of escalating violence--and at the same time found surprising pockets of support among the population.
The violence and harassment comes with the obvious blessing of the government, which has fueled hatred against Baha'is in recent years with a defamatory campaign in the state-sponsored news media--and through outright religious discrimination in schools, the workplace, and the courts.
The government has acted directly against Baha'is as well, through stepped up arrests, detentions, interrogations and harassment, principally by agents of the Ministry of Intelligence.
These agents also often act in disguise--or on orders or court judgments that are kept secret, said Diane Ala'i, a representative of the Baha'i International Community to the UN, who closely monitors the situation in Iran.
"What Iranian Baha'is are facing is a kind of institutionalized 'plainclothes' violence--barely disguised attacks by government agents and their proxies, hoping to make the outside world think it is the people of Iran that are rising up against Baha'is," said Ms. Ala'i.
"The obvious aim is to allow the government to distance itself from international condemnation for its treatment of Baha'is, by claiming that they can't help it if the people themselves feel prejudice against them.
"No doubt there are some individuals who believe the government's lies about Baha'is, and have been moved to act--such as perhaps those who doused the Baha'i...