On the May 24, 2023, over 100 members of the Ahmadi Religion of Peace and Light, a persecuted religious minority, were denied entry and faced violent treatment while seeking asylum at the Turkish–Bulgarian border. Women, children, and elderly were among those targeted by aggression, gunshots, threats, and the confiscation of their possessions.
Among those individuals was Seyed Ali Seyed Mousavi, a 40-year-old real estate agent from Iran. A few years ago, he attended a private wedding where his life took an unexpected turn. Seyed Mousavi found himself at the mercy of undercover police officers who abruptly grabbed him, forced him down, and subjected him to a severe beating. He was left to bleed for 25 minutes before someone finally sought medical assistance.
Seyed Mousavi’s only “crime” was his affiliation with this religious minority, which led to his persecution by the authorities in Iran. The incident forced him to make a difficult decision to leave his homeland behind, abandoning everything he knows in order to preserve his life.
The Ahmadi Religion, not to be confused with the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, is a religious community that was founded in 1999. It received chruch status in the USA on 6 June 2019. Today, this religion is practiced in more than 30 countries around the world. It is headed by Abdullah Hashem Aba Al-Sadiq and follows the teachings of Imam Ahmed al-Hassan as its divine guide.
State sponsored persecution
Since its inception in 1999, the Ahmadi Religion minority has been subjected to persecution in numerous nations. Countries including Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Malaysia, and Turkey have systematically oppressed them, imprisoned, threatened, and even tortured their members. This targeted discrimination is based on a belief that they are heretics.
In June 2022, Amnesty International called for the release of 21 members of the Ahmadi Religion in Algeria who were charged with offenses including “participation in an unauthorized group” and “denigrating Islam.” Three individuals received one year prison sentences, while the remaining were sentenced to six months in prison along with fines.
Similarly, in Iran, in December 2022, a group of 15 followers of the same religion, including minors and women, were detained and transferred to the notorious Evin Prison, where they were coerced to denounce their faith and defame their religion, despite not committing any crimes, nor preaching their faith openly. The charges brought against them were based on their opposition to “Wilayat Al Faqih,” (the guardianship of the Islamic jurist) which grants authority to jurists and scholars who shape and enforce Sharia law in the country. The Iranian authorities even aired a propaganda documentary against the religion on national television.
Ahmadi Religion members have also reported violence and threats by state-sponsored militias in Iraq, leaving them vulnerable and unprotected. These incidents involved armed attacks targeting their homes and vehicles, with assailants openly declaring they are considered apostates deserving death, effectively denying them of any form of protection.
The persecution of the Ahmadi Religion stems from its core teachings that diverge from certain traditional beliefs within Islam. These teachings include the acceptance of practices such as consuming alcoholic beverages and recognizing the choice of women regarding the wearing of the headscarf. Additionally, members of the religion question specific prayer rituals, including the notion of mandatory five daily prayers, and hold the belief that the month of fasting (Ramadan) falls in December each year. They also challenge the traditional location of the Kaaba, Islam's holiest site, asserting it is in modern-day Petra, Jordan, rather than Mecca.
The persecution of this religious minority has escalated significantly following the release of “The Goal of the Wise,” the official gospel of their faith. The scripture was authored by Abdullah Hashem Aba Al-Sadiq, the religious leader who asserted to fulfill the role of the promised Mahdi awaited by Muslims to appear towards the end of times.
Braving the unknown towards freedom
Having gradually traveled to Turkey, over 100 members of the Ahmadi Religion received support from fellow members who had already settled there, fostering a sense of unity through their online connections. Despite the challenges they faced, they persevered in their quest to find a persecution-free home amidst their shared experiences of trauma.
Faced with this dire situation, they turned to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Bulgaria, the State Agency for Refugees (SAR), and the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the hopes of securing a safe haven. Unfortunately, their plea for humanitarian visas was met with disappointment as all avenues proved unfruitful.
In light of their challenging circumstances, the group decided to gather at the official Kapikule border crossing, the gateway between Turkey and Bulgaria on Wednesday, May 24, 2023, to request asylum directly from the Bulgarian Border Police. Their course of action aligns with the provisions set forth in Article 58(4) of the Law on Asylum and Refugees (LAR) which affirms that asylum can be sought by presenting a verbal statement to the border police.
The Border Violence Monitoring Network, along with 28 other organizations, issued an open letter urging the Bulgarian authorities and to the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) to fulfill their obligations under European Union law, and international human rights law. These laws include Article 18 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In Bulgaria, several human rights organizations have coordinated to grant protection to the group and allow them an opportunity to lodge an application for international protection at the Bulgarian border, an effort that was spearheaded by the Association on Refugees and Migrants in Bulgaria. Many other organizations in Bulgaria have endorsed this statement, such as Mission Wings and the Centre for Legal Aid, Voices in Bulgaria.
Their desperate bid for safety was encountered with oppression and violence, as they were forcibly blocked by the Turkish authorities, subjected to beatings with batons, and threatened with gunshots. Now detained, their future remains uncertain. Their greatest fear is to be deported back to their homes, where death might be waiting for them, due to their religious beliefs.
The perilous journey undertaken by this minority group raises crucial questions about the integrity of borders and the commitment of EU member states to uphold human rights. Their struggles serve as a reminder of the need for solidarity to protect basic human rights and preserve the dignity of everyone, regardless of their religious affiliation.