News from Iran has given me tremendous hope and optimism for peace between Iranians, regardless of faith and ethnicity. Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani, a prominent imam and scholar, has taken a stand for coexistence with the country’s Baha’i minority. He has reminded us that Islam is a religion of peace that recognises diversity of every kind as part of God’s design for his creation. And it all came in the form of a gift – one which I am proud to endorse.
For many, Iran is synonymous with persecution and oppression. Iran’s authorities routinely target ethnic and religious minorities, human rights activists, journalists and intellectuals. And the case of the Baha’is is emblematic of these broader violations.
The Baha’is are Iran’s largest religious minority with 300,000 followers. For decades they have been arbitrarily detained, denied education and livelihood, harassed, vilified in the media, and executed. Hundreds were killed after the 1979 revolution. More than 130 Baha’is are currently in prison on false charges. Seven former leaders are serving 20-year jail terms, just for tending to the basic needs of their community. Baha’is have no legal protection as a minority because their faith is not recognised under the constitution.
I am proud, as a Muslim and as an imam, to celebrate this enlightened gift, which has such immense spiritual significance. The faiths of the world should be united in promoting coexistence to advance human civilisation. Six thousand Baha’is live in the UK and I am proud to count many as my friends. The community is respected for promoting interfaith harmony. I am sure that Iranian Baha’is have the same hopes to serve their country and to live in peace.
Rowan Williams said the gift represents “a strand within the Islamic world at its best and most creative”. The bishop of Coventry, Christopher Cocksworth, called it “an imaginatively courageous step”.
The ayatollah has done something unprecedented in Iran. And he is part of a growing trend in that country; others have also championed the inalienable rights of all Iranian citizens. Islam has a history of defending minorities and protecting their religious rights and freedoms. On a recent visit to the Holy Land I was reminded of how this was most emphatically demonstrated by the Caliph Umar when he ruled in Jerusalem. He ensured the Church of the Holy Sepulchre remained a Christian place of worship. Ayatollah Masoumi-Tehrani shows us that Islam’s peaceful legacy is not just history: it must also be the future.