The largest non-Muslim minority in Iran is the Bahais. There were an estimated 350,000 Bahais in Iran in 1986. The Bahais are scattered in small communities throughout Iran with a heavy concentration in Tehran. Most Bahais are urban, but there are some Bahai villages, especially in Fars and Mazandaran. The majority of Bahais are Persians, but there is a significant minority of Azarbaijani Bahais, and there are even a few among the Kurds.
Bahaism is a religion that originated in Iran during the 1840s as a reformist movement within Shia Islam. Initially it attracted a wide following among Shia clergy and others dissatisfied with society. The political and religious authorities joined to suppress the movement, and since that time the hostility of the Shia clergy to Bahaism has remained intense. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the Bahai leader fled to Ottoman Palestine--roughly present-day Israel--where he and his successors continued to elaborate Bahai doctrines by incorporating beliefs from other world religions. By the early twentieth century, Bahaism had evolved into a new religion that stressed the brotherhood of all peoples, equality of the sexes, and pacifism.
The Shia clergy, as well as many Iranians, have continued to regard Bahais as heretics from Islam. Consequently, Bahais have encountered much prejudice and have sometimes been the objects of persecution. The situation of the Bahais improved under the Pahlavi shahs when the government actively sought to secularize public life. Bahais were permitted to hold government posts (despite a constitutional prohibition) and allowed to open their own schools, and many were successful in business and the professions. Their position was drastically altered after 1979. The Islamic Republic did not recognize the Bahais as a religious minority, and the sect has been officially persecuted. More than 700 of their religious leaders were arrested, and several of them were executed for apostasy; their schools were closed; their communal property was confiscated; they were prohibited from holding any government employment; and they were not issued identity cards. In addition, security forces failed to protect Bahais and their property from attacks by mobs.
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