By Meg McSherry Breslin, Tribune Staff Writer

Web-posted Friday, April 4, 1997; 6:00 a.m. CST

As director of the U.S. Bahai refugee office in Evanston, Puran Stevens has heard her share of horror stories involving Bahai families from Iran.

She is saddened by the plight of some families, like one who settled in Chicago several weeks ago.

After spending more than two years in Pakistan waiting for the United States to grant asylum, the family of four arrived here with barely any belongings.

Stevens helped the family members move into a North Side efficiency apartment, then worked with volunteers to get them clothing and food.

"They lost everything in Iran. All of their property was confiscated," Stevens said. "All four of them are in this efficiency room now, but they're not complaining. They told me, we have suffered so much in the past 28 months in Pakistan that this is heaven for us.'"

For Stevens, a native of Iran, the family's experience is a heartbreaking sign of how much things have changed in her homeland. Since the Islamic regime took over in 1979, many Bahais have faced persecution for their religion, which is not recognized in Iran, Stevens said.

"It is absolutely unbearable. A Bahai has no rights now," she said.

"Before, it wasn't free, but we did have institutions. I was in Bahai youth classes, and we could have people come to our home and visit. But now, 15 people can't even be in anybody's home."

Since January, Stevens and other members of the Chicago area's growing Bahai community have been praying and working to raise public awareness of alleged Iranian harassment of Bahais.

As members of a faith with a modern history of persecution, Bahais here say they have a special mission. In addition to practicing their faith, many are fighting for international justice.

Some of their efforts are beginning to get some high-level support.

In January, the U.S. State Department issued a statement calling on Iran to release two men who had received death sentences from the Iranian Supreme Court for apostasy. According to Amnesty International, the men were accused of converting to Islam and then reverting to the Bahai religion.

The United Nations General Assembly also passed a resolution condemning Iranian human-rights violations such as those aimed at Bahais.

Since 1980, more than 200 Iranian Bahais have been executed because of their religion and thousands have been imprisoned, according to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahais of the United States and Amnesty International.

For local Bahais, the hardships faced by their relatives overseas have made their devotion to the faith all the more intense.

Shadan Tofighi, whose relatives have suffered in Iran, said he strives to live in accordance with the Bahai teachings. As a member of the local spiritual assembly, he is host for a spiritual gathering of about 20 Bahais on Wednesday nights at his South Loop apartment.

When Tofighi left Iran at age 13, Bahais were a minority, but they could lead relatively normal lives. In the 1980s, all of that changed.

Tofighi's father was jailed for 19 days without learning his alleged offense. Tofighi believes it was because his father was openly Bahai.

His uncle spent six years in jail, again because of his connection to the Bahai faith. For many months, family members didn't know where Tofighi's uncle was and feared he had been killed. His uncle's experience still haunts Tofighi because his uncle chose to stay in Iran.

"I look at the fact that he had a choice to leave but he wouldn't," he said. "He's making a sacrifice to show the rest of the world that there really is one answer, and that's the unity of mankind."

That unity is the central tenet of the Bahai faith. Race and gender equity also are emphasized. As a result, membership is extremely diverse and includes many converts from other religions.

The Bahai faith was founded in 1844 in Persia by Mirza Husayn-Ali, known as Behaullah. Behaullah was exiled from Iran partly because he claimed to be the newest messenger of God.

Behaullah believed that previous prophets and messengers-- including Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad--had a message for their times, but that he was the latest and most enlightened. As followers of Behaullah, Bahais believe their mission is to unite mankind under one religion.

Chicago-area membership in the Bahai faith has grown from a few hundred in the 1970s to nearly 2,000.

Illinois is the sixth-largest Bahai community in the U.S.

Copyright ©1997, The Tribune

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