Baha'i man accused of spying in Yemen

In what appears to be yet another blow against religious tolerance, an Iranian member of the Bah'ai faith is to go on trial in Yemen – charged with spying for Israel.

The Yemeni government news agency, Saba, reports that 51-year-old Hamid Mirza Kamali Srostani, was arrested last year in the southern city of Mukalla and is accused of spying for Israel over a 23-year period.

Srostani, a businessman who had adopted an Arabic name – Hamid Kamal Mohammed bin Haidarah – is said to lived in both Mukalla and the remote Yemeni island of Socotra.

His "espionage" activities appear to have been nothing more than an attempt to proselytise on behalf of the Baha'i faith which is often regarded with hostility in Muslim countries.

According to the charge sheet, Srostani offered money and charitable aid to induce "poor families and children" to "exit from Islam and embrace the Baha'i religion". Saba's report continues:

"The penal prosecution explained that the accused has held a number of meetings and symposiums in several forums and houses affiliated to him comprising Baha'is and Yemenis to elect members of the so-called 'Central Sacred Lodge' and form its branches in the provinces."

According to prosecutors, these activities were "incompatible with the rules of Islam" and threatened the "independence and territorial integrity" of Yemen.

The accusation of spying for Israel seems to be based on Srostani's contacts with the Universal House of Justice, the Baha'i governing council, which through a historical quirk is now based in Israel.

The Baha'is originated in Iran during the 19th century and by the early 20th century also had a flourishing community in Egypt. In 1868, after being banished from his native Persia, the founder of the faith, Baha'u'llah, was exiled with his family and a small band of followers in the Turkish penal colony of Acre. As a result of this, the faith's international headquarters was established in the Acre/Haifa area which later became part of Israel.

Although the Baha'i faith is often regarded as an heretical offshoot of Islam, the Egyptian community was initially tolerated but its position worsened in the 1950s – partly because of its accidental connections with Israel. 

In the 1960s, President Nasser issued a decree which, in effect, withdrew state recognition from the Baha’i community and confiscated their property. Nasser’s decree was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in 1975 in a ruling which said that only the three “revealed” religions were protected by the constitution: the Baha’is were entitled to their beliefs but practice of the Baha’i faith was a “threat to public order” and therefore fell outside the constitutional protection for freedom of religion.

Today, Baha'is are thought to number no more than 3,000 in Egypt but last month the Egyptian Ministry of Endowments claimed that Bah'ai thought “threatens Islam specifically and Egyptian society in general”. (For more about the mistreatment of Baha'is in Egypt see the 2007 Human Rights Watch report, Prohibited Identities.)

In 2008, six Baha'is (two Yemenis, three Iranians and one Iraqi) were arrested in Yemen on suspicion of proselytising. Twenty armed officers raided several homes in Sana'a, confiscating papers, CDs, photographs and a computer. Although Muslims are encouraged to proselytise – doing so is considered a virtue – proselytising on behalf of other religions is forbidden in most Arab countries.

The two Yemenis were shortly released but the others continued to be detained without charge. The Iranians – who had settled in Yemen more than 25 years earlier after fleeing persecution in Iran – were then threatened with deportation back to Iran.

They were eventually released from jail on condition that they must leave Yemen within two months, and it is unclear what happened to them after that.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Tuesday, 13 January 2015