Land confiscation and mass displacement of Baha’is in Ivel, Iran

Ivel is a remote village in the province of Mazandaran in northern Iran, about 90 kilometers from the city of Sari.

In late 2020, two Iranian courts issued orders that declared ownership of lands by 27 Baha’is in the village of Ivel (pron. ee-VELL) to be illegal. The court documents indicate that the confiscation of their land is due to their religious beliefs. These decisions followed decades of persecution against the Baha’is of Ivel, hard-working and low-income agricultural workers with no other assets and means of earning a livelihood but their homes and agricultural land.

The land seizures take place within the context of recent escalating raids on Baha’i-owned homes and businesses in Iran. On 22 November 2020, over a hundred government agents raided the shops and homes of dozens of Baha’is in seven cities, and demanded that they hand over their property deeds.

In its earliest days, Ivel was the summer residence for sheep farmers from the surrounding region of Mazandaran. There have been Baha’is in the remote village for more than a century and a half. At one time Baha’is comprised about half of Ivel’s total population.

From its inception, the Baha’i community promoted social, economic and cultural developments in Ivel. In addition to the role they played in the area’s agriculture, they established a school at which local children, regardless of their religion, were educated. The Baha’is also built a bath house for use by the villagers, which included modifications to the local reservoir and the introduction of modernisations to improve the facility’s levels of hygiene.

A History of Persecution Through Expulsion and Displacement
Despite the constructive role Baha’is have played in their community, they have experienced a series of persecutions largely characterised by mass expulsion and displacement, and the demolition, bulldozing and confiscation of their properties. In 1941, for example, lives were imperiled when gangs roused local citizens to attack the Baha’is. Baha’is were arrested, severely beaten and subjected to extortion; their houses and belongings were plundered. Finally, they were banished to a village seven kilometres away. When the situation eased some months later, the Baha’is returned to their ancestral homes and farms.

Another incident occurred in June 1983. The Baha’is were forced out of their homes and transported by bus to the nearest major city, Sari. When they arrived, the authorities made them go back. Returning to Ivel, more than 130 of them were imprisoned and held captive in a mosque for three days without any food or water.

Since then, most of the Baha’i homes have remained unoccupied, their residents having fled incidents of violence or as a result of official displacement.

Ivel Baha’is have resided nearby and return to the village only in the summer to plant and harvest their crops and tend to their properties. This required written permission from the police and the court. Baha’is were regularly harassed during their short stays.

In 2007, six of their houses were torched. In 2010, homes belonging to some 50 Baha’i families were demolished and burned. At the time, reports indicated that 90 percent of Baha’i-owned homes had been demolished. The demolitions were part of a long-running campaign to expel Baha’is from the region. The intention of this campaign has been for the Baha’is to never return to Ivel and to take over their lands.

Homes of Bahá’ís from Ivel set on fire by unknown arsonists in May 2007.

Baha’is have pursued legal remedies for more than three decades, to no avail. Numerous complaints were filed with authorities at all levels but, in general, they were met with indifference. In every case, knowledge of the demolitions or the motive behind them was denied by local government officials. In some cases, the verdicts have been in favour of the Baha’is. However, authorities claimed that there was little they could do to implement the decisions in the face of the opposition Baha’is face from local residents.

New Government Directive

In March 2021, the League for the Defence of Human Rights in Iran (LDDHI) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) revealed an official Iranian directive which calls for “strict controls” on the Bahá’ís in the nearby city of Sari. It calls on authorities to introduce measures to “identify Bahá’í students” in order to “bring them to Islam”.

Dated 21 September 2020, the directive calls for a “detailed plan” to ensure that the Bahá’í community is “rigorously controlled”, including their “public and private meetings” as well as “their other activities”. The document was issued by the Commission on Ethnicities, Sects and Religions in Sari, which operates under the aegis of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, a body chaired by Iran’s president and responsible for security matters.

Local and provincial police, the head of Sari’s Intelligence Department, the commander of the local Basij paramilitary force, the head of Education, the Industry, Mining and Trade and the Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism departments, and school and university officials, were all issued the directive.

The organizations which released the letter note that the confiscation of Bahá’í properties in Ivel, which falls under the administration of the city of Sari, may have been in response to this directive.

Property confiscation as a feature of religious persecution
These developments are the latest in a pattern of property confiscations since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. Since that time hundreds of private and business properties belonging to Baha’is have been arbitrarily confiscated, including homes and farms.

On 22 November 2020, over a hundred government agents raided the shops and homes of dozens of Baha’is across Iran and demanded that they hand over their property deeds. The simultaneous raids were staged in at least seven cities around the country and came just hours into a 15-day national lockdown imposed to slow coronavirus infections in the country.

The belongings that were taken included smartphones, computers and tablets, books, including Baha’i texts, and other items. Several of the raided homes belonged to Baha’is who had previously been targeted by the authorities. The Baha’is were also ordered to report to Iran’s Bureau of Investigation.

The raids took place in the capital Tehran, as well as Karaj, Isfahan, Mashhad, Kerman, Shahin-Shahr and Baharestan. Witnesses reported that the agents ignored all the government’s own health protocols while at the homes of the Baha’is.

The Australian Baha’i Community is concerned that, if unchecked, the unjust property confiscations in Ivel could be replicated in other parts of the country as the latest phase in a plan by the authorities to gradually strangulate the entire Baha’i community.

Voices of support from Australian farmers
In response to the confiscation of land owned by Baha’i families from Ivel, a short film was released expressing the concern of Australian farmers. It voices the support of Australian farmers towards the human rights of the Baha’i community in Iran and in particular the property rights of Baha’i farmers from Ivel.