Monday, 22 October 2018
Private Members' Business
Baha'is in Iran
That this House:
(1) notes that:
(a) the Baha'i community in Iran is subject to a widespread and systematic campaign of persecution;
(b) in 2012 and 2015, the House condemned the persecution and treatment of Baha'is in Iran;
(c) the discriminatory and unjust persecution continues, despite Iranian President Hassan Rouhani promising justice and equal opportunity for all Iranians;
(d) Australia was a co-sponsor of the December 2017 resolution by the General Assembly of the United Nations which expressed 'serious concern about ongoing severe limitations and restrictions on the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief in Iran'; and
(e) persecution of Baha'is has recently spread to Yemen where a death sentence was passed against Mr Hamed bin Haydara in January 2018 due to his religion; and
(2) calls for:
(a) the immediate release of all Baha'is currently imprisoned in Iran for their religion, including the remaining Baha'i leaders imprisoned since 2008;
(b) the Iranian Government to repeal all discriminatory legislation and practices, including the 1991 Baha'i Question memorandum of the Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council;
(c) respect for the right of freedom of religion and belief for all and an end to the persecution of the Bahá’ís in Iran; and
(d) the repeal of the death sentence against Mr bin Haydara and the immediate release of all Baha'is currently imprisoned in Yemen for their religion.
I rise tonight to move this motion concerning the widespread and systematic campaign of persecution of Baha'is in Iran. I thank the member for Moore for seconding it when I submitted it and the member for Newcastle for seconding the motion tonight. I also want to recognise the member for Wills, the member for Berowra and the member for Newcastle for speaking on this motion tonight.
The points outlined in this motion are of significant concern to the Baha'i community here in my electorate of Canberra, and I imagine a considerable concern to the Baha'i community right throughout the rest of Australia and the world. I'm very pleased so many of them could join us here tonight for this discussion. Thank you so much for being here tonight. I'd like to specifically acknowledge Dr Natalie Mobini, who is director of the Office of External Affairs for the Australian Baha'i community, for her tireless advocacy for Baha'is here in Canberra and in the broader Australian community. The Baha'i faith is a peaceful faith that was founded over 150 years ago and has been present in Australia since 1920. According to the Australian Baha'i community, the faith's central theme is that humanity is one family and that the time has come for its unification in to a peaceful global society.
The Baha'i community advocates equality. It advocates education. It advocates scientific endeavour. There are more than five million followers around the world. They come from all backgrounds and can be found in virtually every country on earth. Many, as I said, can be found here in my electorate of Canberra as the ACT Baha'i centre is located in a fabulous location in Weston Creek.
The Baha'i community here in Canberra began in 1951 and, on 21 April, 1957, the community became firmly established with the election of its first local spiritual assembly, a local governing council elected by Baha'is in every locality where there are nine or more members. The community here in Canberra has continued to grow steadily and contributes to our city in many ways. From the mid-1980s, the diversity of the community was enhanced by the arrival of Baha'i refugees from Iran. Since becoming the member for Canberra, I've been involved in a number of events at the Baha'i centre by the Baha'i community. Just last week, along with a number of colleagues, I attended the anniversary of the birth of Baha'u'llah right here in Parliament House, where I was proud to share a message from the Leader of the Opposition.
In 2012 and again in 2015, I also raised private members motions in the House condemning the persecution of Baha'is in Iran. Iran has been actively persecuting Baha'is for the last 30 years. In 2008, it imprisoned the entire governing body of Baha'is. That was just 10 years ago that the entire governing body of Baha'is was imprisoned in Iran. Since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, Baha'is have been systematically persecuted. During the first decade of this persecution, more than 200 Baha'is were killed or executed, hundreds more were tortured or imprisoned and tens of thousands of lost jobs, access to education and other rights, all solely because of their religious beliefs.
Persecution is ongoing. One death sentence has been passed and a mass trial is ongoing on similar charges against more than 20 Baha'is. Five of these people are currently imprisoned for their faith. These developments are taking place in the northern portion of the country, which is under Houthi control in Yemen. The Houthis are strongly influence by Iran, which is continuing its longstanding persecution of the Baha'i community in its own country. The international community must call on the Houthis to drop the charges, release those in prison and cease the persecution of Baha'is. This is urgent.
Tonight, this motion receives bipartisan support, and together we call for the basic human right of freedom of religion and for an end to the persecution of Baha'is in Iran. We also call for the immediate release of all Baha'is currently in prison in Iran for their religion, the Iranian government to repeal all discriminatory legislation and practices; respect for the right of freedom of religion and belief for all; and the repeal of the death sentence against Mr bin Haydara; and the immediate release of all Baha'is imprisoned in Yemen for their religion.
I thank the member for Canberra for bringing this motion to the parliament, and I extend a warm welcome to all members of the Baha'i community to the Federation Chamber this evening. The question is that the motion be agreed to.
I also rise to speak in support of the motion moved by the member for Canberra. As we've heard, and as we all know and the people here know, since 1979 the government of Iran has made it official policy to discriminate against and persecute members of the Baha'i community, Iran's largest non-Muslim religious minority. It was back in 2016 that the then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described Baha'is as the most severely persecuted religious minority in Iran. Baha'is are not recognised in the Iranian constitution, they are subjected to strict limits on the right to assemble and worship and Baha'i properties and holy places have been confiscated and destroyed.
Government led attacks on Baha'is have reintensified since 2005. That is why the Australian parliament, in 2012, 2015 and again today with this motion have condemned the persecution and treatment of Baha'is in Iran, which has been noted by all the speakers on this motion. I also note that the member for Curtin, the former foreign minister Julie Bishop, repeatedly called for the release of all seven members of the community's ad hoc national leadership group who were arrested in 2008 and sentenced to 10-year prison terms on spurious charges of disturbing national security, spreading propaganda against the regime and engaging in espionage. Six of the seven have completed their prison terms and been released. The seventh, Afif Naeimi, continues to be incarcerated despite suffering persistent and severe health problems.
Despite this persecution, the Baha'i community in Iran poses no threat to the government or the regime. Baha'is are not aligned with any political ideology or opposition movement, and nor do they engage in subversive activity or violence. They only ask simply for protection under the International Bill of Human Rights, to which Iran is a party.
Worryingly, this persecution has now spread to other countries like, Yemen where the situation is also very grave, although involving a much smaller population. In recent years, the Baha'i community there has experienced escalating persecution, particularly in the Houthi controlled northern portion of Yemen. There are currently six Baha'is in prison in Sana'a. The longest serving prisoner is Mr Hamid Kamal bin Haydara. He has been imprisoned by the authorities in Sana'a since December 2013 and has suffered severe mistreatment, including electrocution and being forced to sign documents while blindfolded. On 2 January 2018 the Specialised Criminal Court in Sana'a sentenced him to death due to his religious beliefs. Furthermore, the judge called for the dissolution of all Baha'i assemblies, thereby placing other Baha'i prisoners, as well as the Baha'i community as a whole, in further danger.
It's important to note that these developments taking place in Yemen are not being necessarily perpetrated directly by the government of Yemen. This is recognised internationally, including by Australia, as an important distinction. The Houthis have been in that part of Yemen strongly supported and influenced by Iran during the civil war. It must be said that there have been atrocious human rights abuses on all sides of the conflict. However, with respect specifically to the minority Baha'i community, Iran has been directing the persecution in a continuation of its longstanding persecution of the Baha'i minority in its own country. Multiple independent sources have confirmed that Iranian authorities are directing efforts to persecute the Baha'i in Yemen. The various forms of persecution experienced by Yemeni Baha'is bear a striking resemblance to what they have experienced in their own country, such as these spurious accusations used when they are arrested—that they are somehow a threat to national security.
The findings have been corroborated by the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Mr Ahmed Shaheed. He said in a statement dated 22 May 2017:
The recent escalation in the persistent pattern of persecution of the Baha’i community in Sana’a mirrors the persecution suffered by the Baha’is living in Iran.
This means there are several hundred thousand people in Iran and Yemen that are in danger based solely on their religious beliefs. The Baha'i community in Iran numbers around 300,000. Although accurate statistics are not available, it's estimated there are now a few thousand Yemeni Baha'i. The Baha'i in Yemen are loyal citizens to their country, representing its rich and diverse culture.
Despite living through a turbulent period of civil conflict in Yemen, the Baha'i have refused to side with any particular group in this conflict and endeavour to serve all people, placing particular emphasis on youth, who are eager to dedicate their energies to the regeneration of their society through service to all. I have met many Baha'i in my own community in my electorate of Wills, and I can speak to the tremendous contributions they make to our local community. I support this motion because the important right of freedom of religion and belief is often breached by those regimes that are based on one religion—usually theocracies—and we must stand up together and be a voice for all the Baha'i that are persecuted around the world.
I support this motion moved by the member for Canberra calling for an end to the systematic persecution of the Baha'is in Iran and Yemen and in many countries across the world. The freedom to practice one's religion is a fundamental right that forms the core of our democratic beliefs in Australia. Our society allows freedom of religion—freedom from persecution, intimidation and harassment. There are many cases of the Baha'is being imprisoned in Iran and Yemen due to their religion beliefs.
The persecution of Baha'is has been confirmed independently by the United Nations group of regional and international eminent experts on Yemen. In its report dated 17 August 2018, the group stated:
Baha'is have also been targeted. The Group of Experts is aware of several Baha'is detained in Sana'a on the basis of their faith, some for more than two years.
Multiple independent sources have confirmed that Iranian authorities are directing efforts to persecute the Baha'is in Yemen. The various forms of persecution experienced by Yemeni Baha'is bear a striking resemblance to what the Baha'is in Iran have experienced in their country, such as the spurious accusation, used when Baha'is are arrested, that they're somehow a threat to national security. These findings were corroborated by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Mr Ahmed Shaheed. Over the years, Baha'is have endured persecution and atrocities, including economic and educational discrimination, imprisonment, torture, restrictions on their right to assemble, raids, arrests, vandalism, violence and even the ultimate sacrifice of death. Since 2005, it is estimated that more than 1,100 Baha'is in Iran have been arrested in Iran and detained.
It is incumbent upon us as elected representatives in a free society to call upon foreign governments around the world, including countries such as Iran and Yemen, to respect the freedom of religion and to allow their citizens to worship peaceably with tolerance. In raising public awareness of this issue it is hoped that world attention will be focused on addressing this grave injustice.
There is a strong Baha'i community in Australia, in particular in the northern suburbs of Perth. I've been fortunate enough to meet a number of Baha'is living in my electorate and also in the surrounding suburbs. Through my association with the local Baha'i community over a number of years, I have observed its members to be very peaceful, tolerant and family orientated. The religion should not be described as fundamentalist or extremist in nature. Rather, it is very moderate in nature. The Baha'i community is an integral part of our society, with its members actively participating in civic activities and volunteering to assist charitable organisations. They are well represented in the professions, in business and in the education sector. Over the years I have developed a closer working relationship and friendship with many Baha'is. I have attended their events and found out more about their philosophy and history, including the challenges they face with persecution in a number of countries across the world.
The Australian community's enhanced by the values of peace, tolerance, unity, family and advancement through education, which the Baha'is practise. What gravely impresses me generally about the Baha'i community in Australia is the ability of its members to integrate and assimilate to Australian society by fully and actively participating in the development and advancement of our country; by being inclusive, cooperative and participative. They have made the most of the opportunities presented to them, settled in and been embraced by their fellow Australians. The value they have placed on education, professional achievement and family values has seen them prosper in their country.
In supporting this motion for an end to the systematic persecution of Baha'is by the governments of Iran and Yemen, and more broadly an end to persecution of Baha'is by governments around the world, I urge all governments to consider the potential contributions that can be made to society by allowing the Baha'is to practice their religion freely.
I too thank the member for Canberra, Gai Brodtmann, for bringing forward this important motion about the terrible persecution of members of the Baha'i faith in Yemen and Iran. I'd like to pay tribute and acknowledge the Baha'i communities of Canberra and surrounds, and thank you for honouring us with your presence here in this chamber.
As many of the previous speakers have noted, Baha'ism is a global religion based on the teachings of Baha'u'llah. It embraces the key tenants of many of the world's religions and sees a pathway for humanity to unite in creating a just and peaceful society. Baha'ism is built on the fundamental idea that we are all as one, equals regardless of background or belief. This principle of equality, along with the key tenants of harmony, human rights and the elimination of poverty and prejudice, form the foundation of the Baha'i belief system.
In my own home city of Newcastle there is a vibrant and dynamic Baha'i community that I have had the privilege to get to know. I'd like to make special mention of Tom Jones, the volunteer Baha'i chaplain at the University of Newcastle. Tom has been relentless in his pursuit of justice for Baha'i people facing persecution in Iran. He has brought to my attention on many occasions his grave concerns. He is also, as are many people in the Baha'i community, active in the Hunter Interfaith Network and the UN associations of Newcastle and the region. So they're people who are very thoughtful, insightful and great contributors to the community of Newcastle. In Australia, the followers of Baha'ism are free to practice their religion without hindrance. In doing so, they contribute greatly to the diversity and richness of the communities in which they live.
Regretfully, this is not the case everywhere. In Iran, where Baha'ism is the largest non-Muslim faith, with around 300,000 adherents, followers face a cruel and repressive regime of discrimination and violent oppression. As I mentioned earlier, Baha'ism is a religion of peace. It poses no threat to the regime and does not align itself with any opposition movement. Despite this, the Iranian government has maintained an official policy of persecution against Baha'is since the Iranian revolution in 1979. The ultimate goal of this is to eliminate the faith entirely. Iranian Baha'is have been subjected to violence, harassment and torture. They regularly find themselves on the receiving end of economic attacks that shackle their businesses or stop them earning an income. Licence applications are rejected, government jobs aren't opened and access to education at schools and universities is denied. There have been assaults, vandalism, beatings, arson and numerous suspicious deaths.
Since 2005 more than 800 Baha'is have been arrested or detained solely for the faith they practice. This includes the many teachers who have been jailed for their involvement in the Baha'i education program. In 2008, all seven leaders of the national Baha'i leadership group were imprisoned on spurious charges like 'disturbing national security' or 'spreading propaganda against the regime'. Despite an international outcry, the sentences stood. As the member for Wills noted earlier, while six have now been released—after finishing their sentences, I might add—one, Afif Naeimi, is still in jail even though he has ongoing health problems. In 2016 the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, described the Baha'i as 'the most severely persecuted religious minority' in Iran.
Australia does raise these issues regularly in the UN Human Rights Council, but things are getting worse, not better, for the Baha'i followers. Indeed, persecution has now spread to Yemen, with evidence suggesting that Iranian authorities are involved. In January this year, a death sentence was passed on Baha'i Mr Hamed bin Haydara solely for the religion he practises. I join with the member for Canberra, indeed all the speakers supporting this motion, in our call for fair and just treatment of Baha'is in Iran, in Yemen and everywhere they live.
Firstly, can I welcome the members of the Baha'i community to the Federation Chamber this evening. We are honoured and it is our privilege to have you here. While I have not known the member for Canberra for very long, probably much to her gain and my detriment, it has been a matter of great privilege for the short time I have known her. Unfortunately this is my first term and she announced recently that it would be her last, and, while I would prefer to see her replaced by a Liberal member for Canberra, in the likely outcome of that, whoever does become the next member for Canberra in the next parliament will have a very hard act to follow, and this motion is an example of that. I have the privilege of representing one of—if not the—most significant houses of worship for the Baha'i in the Southern Hemisphere. Baha'i is a religion that teaches us the importance of peace, tolerance, unity and harmony, so I assume no member of the Baha'i has a Twitter account. And the reason I assume that is that those of us who enjoy the art of politics do not often get any of those sentiments on social media.
A high principle of liberalism is freedom. It's in fact one of our core beliefs, and part of that is freedom of religion, freedom to practice one's religion as one sees fit and also—to guarantee that—the separation of church and state. No person should be able to use the government in any way, shape or form to impose their views, their religious beliefs, on others. We believe in the rights of individuals, and a core part of that is the ability to practice your beliefs as you see fit. This motion says it all, as I have said previously: 'The Baha'i community in Iran is subject to a widespread and systemic campaign of persecution' for no other reason than the fact that the government of Iran does not like or tolerate other religions. In 2012 and 2015, this House, the Australian parliament, condemned the treatment of Baha'i in Iran. This is both fit and proper. The discriminatory and unjust persecution continues, however, despite President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, promising justice and equal opportunity for all Iranians—a promise easily made but not easily kept.
Australia was, as other speakers have noted, a co-sponsor of the December 2017 resolution by the General Assembly of the United Nations, which expressed serious concern about ongoing severe limitations and restrictions on the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief in Iran, and 'serious concern' in diplomatic speak is a very serious term. Persecution of Baha'is has recently spread to Yemen, where a death sentence was passed against Mr Hamed bin Haydara—and I apologise for my pronunciation—in January 2018 due to his religion. The resolution calls for the immediate release of all Baha'is currently in prison in Iran for no other reason than the fact that they choose to practice this religion, including the remaining Baha'i leaders imprisoned since 2008. The Iranian government should repeal all discriminatory legislation and practices, including the 1991 Baha'i question memorandum of the Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council.
Respect for the rights of freedom of religion and belief for all and an end to the persecution of Baha'is in Iran and the repeal of the death sentence against Mr bin Haydara and the immediate release of all Baha'is currently imprisoned in Yemen for their religion is something that this parliament has no trouble expressing and no trouble unanimously passing. What is happening is wrong. It is something that would never occur in Australia. It is wrong that it occurs in other parts of the world. While ever any person is subject to the tyranny of the state for no other reason than what they choose to practise and believe in, all of us are imprisoned.
We are privileged by your presence here today and we stand with you against this horrible tyranny.
I commend the member for Canberra for having moved this motion and brought on this debate in this place and command all my colleagues on both sides of the chamber for their words of support for the Baha'i community here in Australia and particularly their concern for members of their family and the broader community in Iran. I have a sizable Baha'i community in my electorate in Melbourne. I have very good relations with them. I see them from time to time and am happy to support them. But, more importantly, we in this place should stand for the upholding of human rights wherever that is diminished anywhere in the world, regardless of the ethnicity, the religion, the racial origins or any other characteristic of the people concerned. We should be prepared to stand up in this place.
We enjoy the luxury of living in one of the freest societies in the world. We enjoy the luxuries of free speech. We mix that with our responsibilities to give others the right to speak freely in this country. Sadly, that is not the situation which pertains in other parts of the world, including in Iran today, so I wanted to very briefly add my remarks to those of all my colleagues and once again commend the honourable member for Canberra for bringing this motion. I say that we in this parliament stand in solidarity with the Baha'i community and will continue to voice our concerns about the ill treatment and the injustice that happens in that country.