Yemen’s Houthi rebels are waging a campaign of persecution against the country’s Baha’i minority and have already sentenced one of the community’s leaders to death, activists have warned.
The Baha’i faith is a small monotheistic religion which began in Iran in the 1800s and whose followers face regular discrimination in the Middle East for their beliefs and because their headquarters is in Israel.
Yemen’s Baha’i community has been harassed for years but activists say their situation is becoming increasingly perilous under the rule of the Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels, who took control of the capital Sanaa in 2015.
This month the Houthis issued a death sentence for Hamed bin Haydara, a 54-year-old Baha’i man. Houthi authorities accuse him of forging official documents and spying for Israel, charges which he and his family deny.
Mr Haydara was arrested in 2013 by the Yemeni government but the Houthis have continued his imprisonment and issued the death sentence on January 2 without allowing him into the hearing.
His case sparked outcry from human rights groups and has brought a renewed focus on the situation for Baha’i in Yemen.
“The Huthi authorities must immediately quash the death sentence against Hamid bin Haydara. He is a prisoner of conscience who has been tried on account of his conscientiously held beliefs and peaceful activities as a member of the Baha’i community,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty’s Middle East director.
At least five other Baha’i are currently being held in Houthi prisons and dozens of others have been arrested and released in recent years. Armed men stormed a Baha’i community workshop in August 2016 and arrested 65 people.
Among them was Mawahib Yaqub, a 52-year-old Baha’i teacher, who was held in prison for six weeks before eventually being freed.
“The Baha’i in Yemen are living in a state of fear,” said Malath Abbas, Mrs Yaqub’s nephew, who lives in Dundee. “This is not random: these are systematic acts of persecution which are escalating over time.”
Members of the Baha’i community in the UK suspect that the Houthis may be stepping up actions against the Bahai in Sanaa at the behest of their allies in Iran, where the Baha’i are vigorously persecuted. They conceded they had “no documentary evidence” of the connection.
The UN warned earlier this year that the Baha’i in Yemen are “under pressure to recant their faith” and that Houthi authorities had used prosecutions and criminal investigations to try to force them to convert to Islam.
The Baha’i faith draws on elements of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism and their beliefs are met with deep suspicion in Middle Eastern countries where Islam is the dominant faith.
Iran and Arab governments are also wary of the religion because its headquarters, the Universal House of Justice, is based in Haifa in northern Israel - leading to false claims that the Baha’i are linked to the Israeli government.
The Baha’i deny any such connection and say their faith has roots in the Holy Land just like the three major Abrahamic religions.