Armed Houthi gunmen stormed a peaceful Bahai annual general meeting in Sanaa. Credit: Baha'i International Community

The Persecution of Baha’is in Yemen Endangers the Country’s Path to Peace

By Bani Dugal and Saba Haddad

Houthi gunmen staged a violent raid on a peaceful gathering of Baha’is in Sana’a, Yemen, on May 25th, detaining at least 17 people including five women.  Among those affected by the arrests was a toddler, both of whose parents were taken away, and who is now bereft of them without any end in sight.

The raid was caught on video, which quickly went viral. It left Yemeni Baha’is reeling from the latest blow to a severely persecuted religious community—and a week later it only got worse.

A bloodcurdling sermon—filled with disinformation and hate against the Baha’is—was delivered at Friday prayers by the Houthi’s Grand Mufti Shams al-Din Sharaf al-Din. The Baha’i religion spreads, the Grand Mufti said, because of “the generous support of Britain, America and the Jews,” before alleging that the Baha’is are “dangerous and secretly mislead the people and corrupt young men and women.” He also impugned the moral integrity of Baha’is in family and financial matters.

The sermon was a disturbing and fresh example of the de-facto Houthi authorities in Yemen using their platform and power to incite the Yemeni people to acts of violence against the Baha’is. This is not only happening in Yemen, but in Iran which also has a sizable Baha’i population. If left unchecked, the growing persecution of Baha’is may portend a human rights disaster and undermine a fragile peace process underway in Yemen.

The Baha’i faith is a religion that was founded in the 19th century, in modern day Iran. It is pluralistic in outlook—central to the religion is a belief in the inherent worth of all religious traditions. Today, there are about 8 million Baha’is living throughout the world, with large concentrations in the Middle East, including Iran and Yemen.

Baha’is have lived in Yemen since the earliest days of the Faith’s history, in the mid-1800s, and there are thousands of Yemeni Baha’is across the country. Baha’is have traditionally not taken sides in Yemen’s many conflicts throughout the years. This includes Yemen’s current civil war, which began in 2013 when the Iran-backed Houthi rebels overthrew the government in Sana’a.

Now, Baha’is are the targets of the Houthis.

In the June 2 sermon, the Houthi Grand Mufti insisted that while Islam protects the freedom of belief, anyone who leaves Islam should be killed. The dog whistle is loud and clear: Yemenis are being incited, stoked and whipped up against the Baha’is. Not only are Houthi gunmen targeting Baha’is, but Yemeni Baha’is now fear being attacked by lone rangers and vigilantes. The sermon follows a similar one delivered by the Houthi leader, Abdel-Malek al-Houthi, in 2018, in which he called on Yemenis to “defend” their country against the Baha’is.

These sentiments have had real-world consequences. A Yemeni Baha’i named Hamed bin Haydara, who was first arrested in the country in 2013 and later endured prolonged detention and mistreatment by the Houthis, was sentenced to death by a Houthi court in January 2018. Mr. Haydara and five other jailed Baha’is were later released—after sustained international pressure—but in 2020 were then exiled from their homeland. Dozens of others face criminal cases with more baseless accusations.

The hostile attitude towards Baha’is exhibited by Houthis in Yemen reflects the Iranian government’s own persecution of the Baha’is for more than 40 years. Just as the Iranian government has given the Houthis military and political support, so too have they exported this ideology of xenophobic hatred.

The international community has an important role to play in ending the persecution of Baha’is in Yemen. 

Canada, France, the European Union, the United Kingdom’s ambassador to Yemen and its freedom of religion or belief envoy, as well as the United States ambassador, its Office on International Religious Freedom, and the Commission on International Religious Freedom, have all issued public rebukes to the Houthis for the recent arrests. One Yemeni Baha’i has been released—a fraction of the success we need to see—which may be thanks to these statements. More must follow from every UN member-state that supports the freedom of religion or belief and the right to peaceful assembly for religious purposes, opposes arbitrary detention, and has encouraged peace processes in Yemen and the Middle East.

These statements are helpful, but more needs to be done. The Houthis in Yemen receive support from the Iranian government and this relationship should be highlighted—more often and with more force. Governments that work with the Houthis on security and humanitarian issues should use these relationships to impress upon the Houthis the urgency of respecting the humans rights of all, including religious minorities, and devise both incentives and consequences if the Houthis remain obstinate in their persecution of the Baha’i community.

Failure to do so could undermine a fragile peace process underway. UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg has been mediating between Houthi rebels and the internationally recognized government of Yemen, which is backed by a Saudi-led coalition. Last month, he briefed the Security Council on his progress, which includes a substantial reduction of fighting since 2022.  But while he expressed cautious optimism to the Security Council, he also warned that peace cannot take hold unless a Yemeni-lead peace process includes the interests of the entire population. “Only an inclusive and comprehensive political process can sustainably forge a new political partnership and bring the promise of a secure and economically stable future, in which State institutions function effectively and Yemen returns to peaceful relations with its neighbors,” he told the council.

An “inclusive” political process is certainly one that respects the rights of religious minorities. Alas, arresting innocent Yemeni Baha’is and then flooding Yemeni public discourse with hate speech about them is a clear warning that the Houthis, if left unchecked, are not willing to embrace a truly inclusive peace. Just the opposite, they are fomenting a deliberate atmosphere of insecurity.

Thus far, the Houthis have shown a willful disregard for the human rights of a religious minority. This endangers both the Yemeni Baha’i community, and the country’s difficult path to security and peace. The international community has no time to lose in averting an immediate human rights crisis for Yemeni Baha’is, which if left unchecked could lead Yemen to further disaster.

Bani Dugal is the Baha’i International Community’s (BIC) Principal Representative to the United Nations.

Saba Haddad is the BIC’s Representative to the United Nations in Geneva.