Yemen Baha'i community experiences persecution under Houthi-rebel control of Sanaa
Houthis torture and sentence religious activist to death
Handing out flowers and preaching the importance of religious tolerance on the rebel-held streets of Sanaa is not a practice that bodes well under a rebel group whose slogans include “Death to America — A Curse on All Jews”.
It was not long after seizing Sanaa in 2014 that the Iran-backed Houthis, who follow a branch of Shia Islam, began cracking down on the Baha’is for their religious beliefs.
The faith, which originated in Iran in the 19th century and spread across the world, believes in core principles such as universal peace and acceptance of all religions as manifestations of one God.
Last Tuesday, the Houthis' criminal court in Sanaa sentenced a prominent leader of the faith, Hamid Haydara, to death after four years in prison.
According to the spokesperson of the Baha'i in Sanaa, Abdullah Al Olify, the group leaders who have been arrested are being tortured into admitting they work for foreign entities.
52-year-old Mr Haydara was accused of collaborating with foreign entities and forging documents, but the trial discounted evidence that the prisoner was tortured while in Houthi custody since December 2013.
"They unfairly sentenced Hamid Haidarah to death and decided to close all the organisations affiliated with Baha'is in Sana'a and prohibited the practice of Bahaism in Sana'a," Ghamdan Al Duqaimi a journalist and human rights activist in Sana'a told The National.
Mr Haydara is not the first, however. So far this year, at least five Baha’is are being held by the Houthis in Yemen, others have been missing for years.
“The Houthi authorities must end their persecution of the Baha’i community and respect their right to freedom of religion — a right that is enshrined in the country’s own constitution and international law,” Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Research and Advocacy Director said.
The arrest of prominent Baha’i religious leaders — such as Waleed Ayash whose whereabouts are still unknown — has forced followers of the faith to take their peaceful practices underground.
"They arrested many people of our group and put them in the prisons for years. Moreover, they discriminate against us in our workplaces, they looted our houses and kept stirring the people up against us. This is really brutal. They treat us as aliens" Mr Al Olify told The National.
The parents of Mr Ayash have been searching for their son since his disappearance years ago. Any attempt to broach the topic with Houthi authorities in Sanaa has been met with death threats aimed at both the family and Mr Ayash.
In Yemen, Baha'is have been practising their religion in secret since the Houthi takeover of the capital. Their oppression, however, has led them to re-emerge in 2016 and demand answers from the rebels.
“His family doesn't know anything about him, whenever they go to the Houthi officials to ask about their son, Houthis threaten them, and tell them that all Waleed's family members are going to be killed if they raise their voice demanding their son," said Mr Al Olify.
Despite the threats, peaceful campaigns are being held in Yemen to demand the safe return of Mr Ayash and other members of the faith. But Baha’is are still being arrested and interrogated by Houthis.