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A new wave of religious persecution

By David Khorra

Mahrami and his wife, Nahid some years before his death.

Friday, December 23, 2005

I received some sad news today. Miles away, in the country of my birth, a man died last week in a prison cell. He was a 59-year-old husband and father of four children. He had spent the past 10 years in an Iranian government prison. His name was Dhabihu'llah Mahrami. He was imprisoned because of his religious beliefs.

Iran has been one of the fiercest persecutors of its largest religious minority, the Bahá'ís, since the time of the birth of that faith in the mid 1800s. In recent history, the persecutions escalated again during the last 30 years. Since 1978, more than 200 Iranian Bahá'ís have been killed, hundreds imprisoned, and thousands deprived of jobs, pensions and education as part of a widespread and systemic religious persecution by the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

I left Iran for the United States when I was two years old. I come from a diverse religious heritage. My father was raised a Muslim, and my mother comes from a Zoroastrian background. As Bahá'ís, it was wise for us to leave Iran in the mid 1960s. My cousins who remained in Iran were deprived of the opportunity for an education because of their membership in the Bahá'í community.

Although the persecutions were fiercest during the early years of the Islamic Republic's history, Mr. Mahrami's death comes amidst ominous signs that a new wave of persecutions has begun. This year so far, at least 59 Bahá'ís have been arrested, detained or imprisoned-a figure up sharply from the last several years.

In a press release, Bani Dugal, the principal representative of the Bahá'í International Community to the United Nations commented that while the cause of Mr. Mahrami's death is not known, he had no known health concerns.

"We also know that Mr. Mahrami was forced to perform arduous physical labor and that he had received death threats on a number of occasions," said Ms. Dugal.

"In this light, there should be no doubt that the Iranian authorities bear manifest responsibility for the death of this innocent man, whose only crime was his belief in the Bahá'í Faith," said Ms. Dugal.

"In our mourning, we nevertheless hope that Mr. Mahrami's unexplained passing will not go unnoticed by the world at large and, indeed, that his case might become a cause for further action towards the emancipation of the Bahá'í community of Iran as a whole," said Ms. Dugal.

The same press release, from Bahá'í World News Service gave the following information:

Arrested in 1995 in Yazd on charges of apostasy, Mr. Mahrami was initially sentenced to death. His sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment after an international outcry and widespread media attention.

Born in 1946, Mr. Mahrami served in the civil service but at the time of his arrest was making a living installing of venetian blinds, having been summarily fired from his job like thousands of other Bahá'ís in the years following the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Although Iranian officials have asserted that Mr. Mahrami was guilty of spying for Israel, court records clearly indicate that he was tried and sentenced solely on charge of being an "apostate," a crime, which is punishable by death under traditional Islamic law.

The death sentence against Mr. Mahrami stirred an international outcry. The European Parliament, for example, passed a resolution on human rights abuses in Iran, making reference to Mr. Mahrami's case. The governments of Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States also registered objections.

There was also significant media coverage of the case, in Le Monde and Libration in France, as well as reports by the BBC, Reuters and Agence France Presse.

Although the authorities did not publicly bow to international pressure calling for Mr. Mahrami's release, in December 1999 they took the occasion of the anniversary of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad to declare an amnesty and commuted his sentence to life imprisonment.

As of October, Mr. Mahrami was one of nine Bahá'ís being held in Iranian prisons. However, all of the others had been arrested in 2005.

Mr. Mahrami's funeral was held last Friday, Dec.16, the same day that the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution expressing "serious concern" over the human rights situation in Iran, making specific mention of the ongoing persecution of the Bahá'í community there.

Religious persecution of many faiths and of many forms continues in many places around the world. By shining a spotlight on such cases, the we can let the perpetrators know that the world is watching them.

David Khorram, MD is a board certified ophthalmologist, and director of Marianas Eye Institute. Questions and comments are welcome. Call 235-9090 or email

©Copyright 2005, Saipan Tribune - Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands, Micronesia. All rights reserved.

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