Magazine article The Christian Century

Yemen's Baha'is Keep Faith amid Conflict, Crackdown

Magazine article The Christian Century

Yemen's Baha'is Keep Faith amid Conflict, Crackdown

Article excerpt

For 11 days in August, Ruhiyeh Thabet al-Sakkaf and Nafheh Sanai al-Sakkaf shared a jacket and a damp cell at Yemen's National Security Bureau after armed officers stormed a multifaith youth event the sisters-in-law were leading and arrested 65 men, women, and children.

"They raided us how they would raid a terrorist cell, with masked gunmen shouting, 'Quiet! Sit down! Nobody move!"' Ruhiyeh said.

Ruhiyeh and Nafheh are members of the Baha'i faith, which emphasizes spiritual unity and service. Previous Yemeni regimes have been suspicious of the few thousand Baha'is who live in the overwhelmingly Muslim country.

Now, with conflicts raging across the region, members of the minority faith are facing new levels of discrimination and persecution from the Houthis, a Shi'ite Muslim group that rose to prominence after seizing control of Yemen's northwest in 2014.

Ruhiyeh said that as a condition of their release, the young girls--most of them Muslim--who attended the event in early August were forced to sign pledges stating they would not communicate with Baha'is or engage in any Baha'i-inspired social work.

Nafheh and Ruhiyeh signed similar pledges when they were released, with an added clause that they would only practice their religion at home.

"My faith is a pledge to God that I must serve my fellow citizens and my country," Ruhiyeh said she told a guard, to no avail.

Ruhiyeh's husband, Nadim al-Sakkaf, is the British Council's country manager in Yemen. Jle and his brother Nader, who is Nafheh's husband, were detained from August until their unexpected release in November. Their friend Keyvan Qadari remained in custody.

The three Baha'i men faced charges of relaying information to Israel (where the international governing council of the Baha'i faith is centered, and where a shrine to its leader, the Baha'u'llah, is based), converting people to the Baha'i faith, and acting as spies for foreign countries.

The charges are serious but completely baseless, the accused men's wives said. International observers agree. Amnesty International called the men prisoners of conscience and wrote that they were arbitrarily detained.

Ruhiyeh recalls the agony of not being allowed to contact her children or the outside world in those first few days of imprisonment.

"We didn't know our husbands were in prison until our fourth day there when my sister-in-law went to bathroom and came back crying, saying she had seen my husband blindfolded and cuffed," Ruhiyeh said. …

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