Iran's Intelligence Ministry on Monday, in a rare move, announced the arrest of several prominent members of the minority Baha'i faith, accusing them of "spying" for Israel.
In a statement, the ministry said the suspects based in Iran were affiliated with an Israel-backed Baha'i center in the occupied Palestinian territories dubbed 'Bait al Adl' and transferred sensitive information there.
The center, it added, issued instructions to the detained individuals in order to revive the Baha'i faith, which is not officially recognized by the Islamic Republic, particularly in kindergartens across the country.
The development came amid a spree of arrests of individuals and networks, allegedly linked to Israel, by Iran's intelligence agencies in recent weeks.
The Iranian government has rarely reported the arrests of the members of the Baha'i faith, which was founded by Baha'ullah in 19th century Persia and is seen as inconsistent with Islam.
However, members of the group have often complained of persecution and crackdown in Iran, and tens of thousands of them have over the years migrated to other countries.
In a statement after the ministry's announcement, Baha'i International Community, a non-governmental organization with branches in over 180 countries that also represents the group in the UN, said it was "outraged" over the arrests of prominent community activists including Mahvash Sabet, Fariba Kamalabadi, and Afif Naemi.
"Sabet, Kamalabadi & Naemi, formerly part of the Iranian Bahai community leadership, previously served 10-year prison sentences and are domestic symbols of resilience and internationally-renowned former prisoners of conscience," said the statement.
It added that their arrests revealed the Iranian government’s "escalating persecution of Iran’s Baha’i community."
The statement posted on Twitter described Sabet as an "educator and poet" who won the International Writer of Courage by English PEN for her 2003 book of poems written in jail.
Kamalvandi, it said, is a "developmental psychologist," who was in 2017 recognized by the US Commission on Religious Freedom as a "religious prisoner of conscience."
Naemi, the statement noted, spent "much of his 10-year prison sentence in ill health" and was released in 2018 with other members of the former Baha’i leadership group.
Diane Alai, representative of the Baha'i International Community at the UN, also took to Twitter to denounce the latest arrests of the group members, terming it "outrageous."
She later told media that 13 Baha'is had been "suddenly arrested in raids on the homes and businesses of 52 Baha'is across the country."
The arrests and legal trials of the members of the Baha'i community in Iran have often drawn anger and outrage from Western countries.
In February 2009, after Iranian judicial authorities announced that seven members of the group would soon be tried on charges of "espionage for Israel, desecrating religious sanctities and propaganda against the Islamic Republic," Washington strongly decried the decision.
After the then-UN special rapporteur for human rights in Iran published a report in 2013 criticizing the situation of Baha'is in Iran, then-top Iranian human rights official dismissed the group as a "cult," saying "cults are illegal everywhere in the world."
"As far as we are concerned, Bahaism is not a religion. It is a cult and cults are illegal everywhere in the world. The United States and France have laws against cults. Cultism is a crime. Why is it that they are constantly talking about minorities and ethnic groups? This is a conspiracy; they are using this issue to cover their own terrorist activities," Mohammad Javad Larijani said at the time.