On 10th December IOPHR held a webinar titled “From Conflict to Unity – Learning from Beacons of the Past”, with the aim to commemorate the International Human Rights Day, as well as to celebrate the lives of four renowned human rights advocates in history namely: Mahatma Gandhi, Dr Martin Luther King Jr, Mother Teresa and Dr Noor Ali Tabandeh, and their contributions to the global human rights movement.

Mattie Heaven, the chair of the event, began the webinar with her opening remarks on the importance of International Human Rights Day, and celebrating the day that the United Nations declaration of human rights was signed by different countries as well as the importance of the achievements of the life of four personalities for discussion at this occasion. Ms Heaven also stated that these four individuals should be considered as role models for humanity, and their efforts should not be forgotten.

The webinar was then opened officially by the Lord Mayor of Coventry, Ann Lucas, who stressed on the important principle of the City of Coventry, as a City of Peace and Reconciliation, especially in the context of being bombed heavily during World War II. She explained it is a city that cherishes the history of peace, and reconciliation with other cities and countries, who have suffered in a similar way. As Coventry has a history of welcoming people from other cultures, who are trying to rebuild their lives. This is why Coventry is the first city to twin with other cities, in order to increase unity between different cultures.

She also stressed on the importance of the lives of the four individuals who are being discussed in this webinar, and mentioned that at the end of the event she will announce the IOPHR Unity Award, as means of commemorating the lives of these four important human rights advocates.

Then the event started with a speech from Dr. Nitish Raut,a Consultant Doctor, a Conservative Councillor of the Royal Town of Sutton Coldfield and a Director of Indians4WM, who was involved in the installation of the Blue Plaque on the event of Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th Birth Anniversary event in Birmingham 2019, and organised an interactive international event on the occasion of Mahatma Gandhi’s 151st Birth Anniversary this year.

Dr Raut’s talk began by a quote from Gandhi, who famously said: “The world is adequate for everyone, but not adequate for everyone’s greed.” Dr Raut then used this quote as means of showing Gandhi’s ability to openly speak the truth, and discussed Gandhi’s own awakening towards the truth by admitting his own faults to his father. As it was from this realisation, and accepting his mistakes that he found the means of evolution and moving forward. In addition to possessing the necessary ability and courage to forgive. As in Gandhi’s viewpoint, Dr Raut stressed, revenge only provides momentary satisfaction which fades quickly. Therefore, to be able to forgive requires a moral strength, which then allows conciliation.

Dr Raut also stated that Gandhi stressed on the importance of environment for changing people’s behaviour from violence to nonviolence. Gandhi believed each person possessed a divine nobility, and thus should be respected. He also further believed that all religions were based on this same principle. Gandhi considered the world as a global village, and asked people to create weapons of nonviolence, weapons which were based on winning the person’s heart, by touching the person’s heart. As this was Gandhi’s way of changing other people’s minds.

Moreover, Dr Raut stated that Gandhi believed in giving the people the power to choose, and it is the responsibility of people to provide others the necessary knowledge to make the optimal choices. Thus conveying this knowledge is a responsibility of those who possess this knowledge. That is why Gandhi was deeply respected by many, and even by his assassin, who bowed to him as he shot and killed him. As his assassin’s actions were motivated by his rejection of Gandhi’s method and not his principles, and in all probability Gandhi would have forgiven his assassin if he had survived. Dr Raut stated that by observing Gandhi’s principles we can all further his mission and approach, and for this we need to consider the world as a global village, just like Gandhi.

The second speaker of the webinar was Denise Pitter, a trained actor and an activist who uses the medium of plays as educational tools such as a play on exploring Homelessness and conducting Drama workshops in Prisons. Ms Pitter began her speech on Dr Martin Luther King Jr, by showing pictures of her young black daughter hugging her white friend, as means of showing how things have changed since the time of Dr King. She then stressed that 57 years ago, when Dr King made his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech, things were decidedly different. As even though in the US, slavery was abandoned, black Americans still lived in segregation and bondage in many areas of the US.  Therefore, Dr King’s activism has had profound impact on the life of black people in US and globally. For Dr King believed in achieving equal rights through nonviolence, even though many African Americans at the time thought the only way forward was violence.

Ms Pitter stated that Dr King was heavily influenced by the Bible’s teachings on loving thy enemy and also Gandhi’s teachings. That is why in his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech he said that he dreamed that one day his children would be judged by the content of their character, and not by the colour of their skin, and thus could live peacefully next to children of other races. Dr King also had the courage to stand his ground and keep to his beliefs, despite numerous death threats. As he tried to unify all people of colour as means of overcoming segregation, through peaceful protests and to gain the power to vote. It was due to international recognition of his efforts that he became the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Ms Pitter also stated that Dr King’s dreams have come true only partly, as recent events show, and thus there is still a long way to go to achieve them fully. Thus, we need to keep his dreams alive and dream even bigger and bolder for our children’s future 60 years from now. Just like Dr King did through believing in the power of love and unity. As Dr King did not act alone, for he achieved all he did, through help of others. So we need to call out on injustices through love like he did, so that we can create a unified society. For as Dr King famously said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Therefore, we must all try to become individual beacons of light and this change starts from us.

The third speaker of the event was Rev Sarah Tinker who is the resident minister with Kensington Unitarians, and spoke about the life of Mother Teresa. Rev Tinker began her talk by saying she is always saddened when she hears the words Human Rights used in a derogatory ways. As it is an important principle we all need to observe. She then discussed Mother Teresa as a devout Catholic, and even though Mother Teresa may not agree with Rev Tinker’s faith, Rev Tinker has always had a great appreciation for Mother Teresa’s life. As she is impressed by the fact Mother Teresa was a contemporary women who worked in a world of poverty and with a strong character, and thus was able to help the poor.

Rev Tinker discussed Mother Teresa’s Albanian roots and how she left for Ireland and then to India, where she became a nun in 1931 and later founded the Order of The Missionary of Charities, and how through her actions she became famous, and was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.  She also discussed how Mother Teresa famously refused the dinner at the Nobel award ceremony, and instead asked the money to be send to India where it could be used to feed the poor for a year!

Rev Tinker also in her speech shined the light on how Mother Teresa used publicity effectively to raise funds for her missions, and how she saw Christ in everyone and believed prayer without action is no prayer at all!  So although Mother Teresa’s teachings are also part of many other religions, the important point is that she lived them throughout her life.

She also commented how Mother Teresa thought that the poverty in the Westerns world was even harder to address, as it was both financial and spiritual poverty.

Rev Tinker also discussed how Mother Teresa was made a saint by the Pope in 2015, yet in all probability Mother Teresa would have personally objected to her sainthood, as she had expressed inner doubts about her faith. Yet, fundamentally, Mother Teresa believed that the line between good and bad runs through a person’s heart.

Rev Tinker also stated even though there are some controversies around Mother Teresa, she is still a beacon of light, especially as she was a citizen of the world and dedicated herself to a higher cause through service to others. Thus, we can all learn from her and become a whole rounded person.

The final speaker of the webinar was Mr Afshin Sajedi, the European Representative and Legal Advisor at the International Organisation to Preserve Human Rights (IOPHR) with a special focus on Religious Freedom. Sajedi’s speech was on the Iranian human rights activist, jurist and spiritual leader Dr Noor Ali Tabandeh. Mr Sajedi began his speech by reciting one of the quotes from Dr Tabandeh namely: “No saint in the world is more sacred than a human life!”

According to Sajedi this quote encompasses the core element of the concept of human rights and Dr Tabandeh’s approach towards others. As the sanctity of a human life was always a non-negotiable principle for Dr. Tabandeh.

He then discussed Dr Tabandeh’s life and education from studying law in Iran and France, and working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and then moving to the Ministry of Justice. Further, on how Dr Noor Ali Tabandeh had an active role in society both before, and after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and throughout his life, he was always the voice of the voiceless, and firmly stood by his principles. He represented and defended the rights of individuals that no lawyer would dare represent and defend!

For example, before the Islamic Revolution, he defended Ayatollah Pasandideh, who was the brother of Khomeini, where during that time anyone who spoke out against the Shah, was under severe pressure, and nobody dared to provide legal representation for such individuals. But Dr. Noor Ali Tabandeh represented and defended Ayatollah Pasandideh in Court. He maintained this principle even after the Iranian Revolution, when he voluntarily and without accepting any financial pay, took up the responsibility to provide legal representation for Amir Entezam, who was known as the longest imprisoned political prisoner in the world, and was sentenced to death by hanging. In defending his rights, Dr. Noor Ali Tabandeh overturned the execution of Mr. Entezam, and saved him from a certain death.

Mr Sajedi discussed how following the 1979 revolution in Iran, unfortunately, with the influence of the ruling regime, the Iranian constitution was manipulated, and all fair-minded judges were side-lined, which made it impossible for Dr. Tabandeh to accomplish his duty, and led to him resign from his post. Furthermore, Dr. Noor Ali Tabandeh was highly regarded and respected among all political and social groups, regardless of their beliefs and political worldviews, and was in fact a point of unity between all opposition groups, and was seen as a source of inspiration.

That is why he and his colleagues registered Iran’s first official human rights organization, the Iranian Committee for the Defence of Human Rights, and submitted the registered documents to the United Nations secretary.  Unfortunately, under the pressure of the new government, this committee was forced to cease its activities in 1981. But a few years later, in 1985, Dr. Tabandeh and his colleagues established another human rights organization called “The Association for the Defence of Freedom and Sovereignty of the Iranian Nation”. This association continued its human rights activities until 1990.

Throughout his life Dr Tabandeh was a man of peace and nonviolence, as during the Iran-Iraq war in the mid-1980s, Dr. Noor Ali Tabandeh and several directors of this association sent a letter to the then President of Iran about the consequences of continuing the war in Iran, and warned the President about the plight of Iranian society. Moreover, few years later as result of signing the letter protesting the changes to Iranian constitution he was arrested and tortured.

During his detention, prison officials contacted Dr. Noor Ali Tabandeh’s wife, and intentionally gave her the false news of Dr. Tabandeh’s execution, to increase pressures and expose her to further psychological torture. The shock of this news to the faithful and devoted wife of Dr. Noor Ali Tabandeh, led to her immediate cardiac arrest, and she passed away whilst on the phone! The tragedy did not stop here, as Dr. Noor Ali Tabandeh was not even allowed to attend his wife’s funeral.

Mr Sajedi also discussed the spiritual role of Dr Tabandeh after becoming the spiritual leader of eight million Gonabadi Sufis 1997, after the murder of his predecessor by certain elements within the Iranian regime. It was under the capacity as the leader of Gonabadi Sufi Order, Dr. Noor Ali Tabandeh founded the Reza Aid Institute, established to provide services and facilities of all kinds for those with low income, and the elderly who were no longer able to look after themselves, and did not have anybody to look after them. It is important to note that these services were made available for all citizens, and not at all limited to any groups. The kinds of social services and support that were provided were endless, including, but not limited to social welfare, medical support, hospital treatments, legal advice and legal representations, monthly financial support, as well as care homes for the elderly. 

As the leader of the Sufi order, Dr Tabandeh faced further sabotage and harassment. As in the following years, dozens of houses of worship which belonged to the Sufis were attacked and some of them were set on fire. Dozens of Sufis were killed, hundreds were wounded, and thousands were imprisoned. Despite pressures imposed by the ruling regime, Dr. Noor Ali Tabandeh taught his followers the same principles that he lived by throughout his life. And this is why Iran’s ruling regime saw him as a threat, as he was educating millions to stand up for what is just, and to not remain silent in the face of oppression. 

Dr. Noor Ali Tabandeh taught his followers that: “In friendship, we are gentle like a running stream of water, but in defence against oppression, we are resilient like a rock”.

Despite this peaceful approach, pressures on Sufis in Iran was increasing day by day. Also as result of Dr Tabandeh’s leadership many people were becoming Sufis, as some estimate the number of Sufis in Iran to be as high as ten percent of the total population of Iran.

While government officials were preparing the public for war, and belligerent propaganda were being broadcasted on all state television, radio and newspapers, Dr. Noor Ali Tabandeh used the influence of his words for peaceful purposes, and sent a message to his followers urging them not to take part in the war. This caused waves of anti-war sentiment in the society and the authorities to reconsider their decision to start a dangerous war.

Eventually, the government decided to physically eliminate Dr. Noor Ali Tabandeh.  Firstly, the security forces surrounded his home, and then, with the help of a group of four relatives and infiltrators, took control over his home, and placed him under a house arrest which lasted two years.

They arrested his trusted physician, and then began the slow process of gradually poisoning him after appointing a treacherous medical team. During Dr. Noor Ali Tabandeh’s two year house arrest, he was barred from speaking, and nobody was allowed to visit him. All affairs related to him were carried out by four government agents who were Sufis in name only, and used their position to forge fake statements in Dr Tabandeh’s name in order to spread false news and misinformation.

Finally, on the 24th December 2019, as a result of the conspiracies of the group of four members, and the medical team, this great human rights defender fell victim to the great human rights violation perpetrated by the Iranian regime.

Mr Sajedi stated that after Dr Tabandeh’s murder, a group of his followers decided to launch a campaign, “Justice for Dr. Tabandeh”, along with the Fact-Finding Committee, to clarify the truth, and to call upon the world to pay attention to the murder of Dr. Noor Ali Tabandeh, and not to ignore this crime easily.

Dr. Noor Ali Tabandeh’s spirit of standing up for what is just, and defending the truth, lives on among his eight-million followers who he nurtured for 23 years of being their spiritual leader.

After the final speech of the event, the lord Mayor of Coventry presented the 2020 IOPHR Annual Unity Award to the four personalities under discussion by stating that: “On the anniversary of the signing of the declaration of human rights, the founding director of IOPHR , Dr Seyed Azmayesh, would like to announce the commencement of an annual IOPHR human rights award. Moreover, because of their inspirational lives and their efforts in the field of human rights advocacy, which have inspired organisations like IOPHR, IOPHR would like to name these four individuals as the first recipients of this award. As each of these individuals even though they have passed away have made their own unique contributions to global human rights and thus their advocacies remain a guiding beacon for all those interested in advocacy of human rights.”

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The IOPHR Unity Awards for Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Mother Teresa and Dr Noor Ali Tabandeh

Ms Heaven then closed the webinar by declaring that although many countries have signed the human rights declarations sadly not all of them live up to those declarations in practice. However, we need to learn from the four personalities and at least uphold those rights and human dignity in our lives.  She then ended the event by reciting the famous poem of 13th century Sufi poet Saadi on the importance of human life which states:

Human beings are members of a whole,

In creation of one essence and soul.

If one member is afflicted with pain,

Other members uneasy will remain.

If you have no sympathy for human pain,

The name of human being you cannot retain.

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