Iran slaps 20-year jail terms on seven Bahai: French Bahai

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Iran has sentenced seven leading members of its Bahai religious minority to 20-year jail terms, a spokeswoman for the French members of the faith told AFP on Monday.

The United States and the European Union had criticised Iran's detention of the Bahai members, and their reported jailing will revive calls for Tehran's Islamic regime to respect religious freedom.

"On Sunday, authorities orally announced 20-year sentences to the defendants' lawyers," said Sophie Menard, spokeswoman for the Bahai community in France, adding that the group was awaiting confirmation of the terms.

"The lawyers have begun proceedings to seek an appeal, which ought to allow them access to the written judgements," she explained.

Iran arrested seven Bahai leaders in May 2008 and this year put them on trial on charges of "spying for foreigners" and of cooperating with Israel.

Followers of the Bahai faith, which was founded in Iran in 1863, are regarded in the Islamic republic as infidels and suffered persecution both before and after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The Bahais consider Bahaullah, born in 1817, to be the latest prophet sent by God and believe in the spiritual unity of all religions and all mankind.

The group now has seven million followers, including 300,000 in Iran -- where its members are barred from higher education and government posts -- and has a large temple in Haifa, in northern Israel, a location that has increased Tehran's suspicions about the group.

"For Muslims, there can't be another prophet or divine messenger after Mohammed," explained Bahai follower Foad Saberan.

"So they consider Bahaullah an impostor and his followers heretics, whereas the Bahai faith has nothing to do with Islam and is an independent religion.

"And if the headquarters of the religion is in Haifa, it's because that's where Bahaullah ended up settling in 1868 after he was exiled to Baghdad then to Constaninople, long before the creation of the state of Israel."

© 2010 AFP

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