Iran will always be connected with the Bahai movement, recently estimated to have six million followers worldwide. Officially, there are no longer any Bahais residing in the Islamic Republic of Iran, although it has been suggested that some 330,000 still live there. The faith affirms the ultimate unity of all the great religious leaders (Zoroaster, Jesus, Mohammed, the Judaic prophets, Gautama Buddha, Krishna) as historic manifestations of The Word, saying 'the earth is but one country and humanity its citizens'. Bahai doctrines are egalitarian, teaching the complete equality of men and women and the unity of all humanity.
Their story begins in the 1840s when a charismatic theologian Sayyid Ali Mohammed Shirazi won over many followers by his piety, saying that he was the gate (bab) opening the way for the imminent return of the Hidden (12th) Imam. His later proclamation in 1848 that he himself was the Imam led to his execution in Tabriz in 1850, after some 3,000 of his followers were killed.
Further persecution followed after a Bahai assassination attempt on the Qajar shah failed, and to escape the following pogrom many fled to Iraq and Syria and so into South America, and Turkey and Europe. The headquarters of Babaism, renamed as Bahaism in the 1860s, was established in Akka, which to many Muslims smacked of strong Zionist involvement. In the mid-1950s the Bahai's Tehran offices were severely damaged and the shah was implicated. In 1979 the Bab's house in Shiraz was destroyed, Bahai cemeteries desecrated, and all endowments, properties and personal records confiscated.
Today they remain the most persecuted religious minority in Iran. It is illegal to practise the religion in public and followers are routinely discriminated against when it comes to jobs and education. Most are urban, but there are some Bahai villages, especially in Fars and Mazanderan provinces.