Bahai News - Baha’i details troubles in Iran

Baha’i details troubles in Iran

Of The Gazette Staff

Olya Roohizadegan’s story, like her religion, is one of love, steadfastness, peace, unity and justice.

Raised in Iran, Roohizadegan was persecuted for her “faith and belief” in the Baha’i religion. She was eventually arrested for being Baha’i. While imprisoned for 11 months in the early 1980s she survived interrogation and torture for refusing to recant her beliefs.

While in prison in Iran, Roohizadegan made a promise with other incarcerated Baha’i women that if any of them were freed they would share their story. She was in Billings Thursday fulfilling that promise during a talk at Parmly Billings Library.

In 1985 Roohizadegan published “Olya’s Story, a Surivivor’s Dramatic Account of the Persecution of Baha’is in Revolutionary Iran” a book about her story. Roohizadegan and her husband live in Syndey, Australia, and she travels around the world telling of persecution in Iran.

Iran is nearly 99 percent Muslim, and the government views Baha’i as heretical. The government continues to deny rights to members of the Baha’i faith. The persecution ranges from not releasing Baha’is’ pension funds to desecrating Baha’i cemeteries.

Baha’i is considered an independent religion, based on the belief that its founder, Baha’u’llah who lived in Persia in the 1800s, is the most recent in a line of messengers of God, similar to Moses, Christ and Muhammad.

“Religion, like education, progresses,” Roohizadegan said. “There is nothing wrong with any other religion.”

Among Baha’is tenants are: to give up prejudice, establish equality of men and women, recognize the unity of religious truths, eliminate the extremes of poverty and wealth, provide universal education, for each person to independently search for truth, establish a global commonwealth of nations, and that religion is in harmony with reason and pursuit of scientific knowledge.

But following that belief system was, and is, a crime in Iran, and Baha’is don’t enjoy any basic rights.

“You are free, you have rights,” Roohizadegan said. “You can’t imagine.”

That is why she tells her story and the story of the women who shared her prison cell. Most of the women were tortured and hanged. Roohizadegan travels with a thick photo album and during her talks holds up 8-by-11 photos of the friends and family who were hanged because they would not recant their faith.

Roohizadegan started the story of her persecution by telling of regular day at work as a personnel officer. After 22 years working at an oil company in Iran, on May 18, 1982, officers came into her office and asked Roohizadegan her faith. She answered Baha’i.

“ ‘This is your crime,’ they said,” Roohizadegan recalled. “I said ‘This is my belief, my faith.’ ”

Later she was arrested at gunpoint from her home and imprisoned. Her husband was fired from the same oil company and his pension seized. Eventually, the couple’s home was ransacked and their bank accounts confiscated.

At one point the prison guards brought Roohizadegan her 3-year-old son. As she held him on her lap, the guard told Roohizadegan if she did not recant her faith, she would be hanged. She would not recant.

“You can kill my body, but you cannot kill my soul,” she said.

A short time later Roohizadegan was released from prison, partially because of United Nations, American and other pressures on Iran and partially because the government hoped to follow her and learn the identities of other Baha’is. Shortly before she was to be arrested again, a Muslim neighbor of the Roohizadegan family tipped her to the arrest and the family fled to Pakistan.

Roohizadegan said she has forgiven her captors and torturers.

“I feel no hate,” she said.

As Roohizadegan talked about the loved ones who were whipped and hanged, she does not appear remorseful. Rather, she smiled and was in awe of their hope, steadfastness and faith in God.

“I don’t want to make you sad,” Roohizadegan said. “This is a story of victory. They died, but they did not deny the truth.”

Roohizadegan acknowledges that her trials have been difficult, but her faith and trust in God have sustained her.

"I lost my home, my country, my language and my family," she said. "But I am lucky. I did not lose my faith."

Becky Shay can be reached at 657-1231 or at

Updated: Fri Apr 20 16:50:37 CDT 2001 Central Time

©Copyright 2001, The Billings Gazette

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