Bahai News - Courage In The Face Of Tyranny

Courage In The Face Of Tyranny

Source: Evening News - Scotland
Publication date: 2000-06-08

Olya Roohizadegan escaped the hangman's noose but will never forget her friends who died. Susan Dalgety meets a woman with a mission..

THE ten women were taken from their prison cells, ordered on to a bus and driven to the execution site. Mona, Roya, her mother Izzat, Shirin, Zarrin, Mahshid, Simin, Akhatar, Tahirih and Nusrat were then hanged one by one in front of each other.

Their heinous crime? The women, the youngest only 17, were all members of the Baha'i faith and had steadfastly refused, even as the noose was tightened round their necks, to recant their beliefs.

In revolutionary Iran, where fundamental Muslims led by the Ayatollah Khomeini had banned their faith, such stubbornness was enough to seal their fate.

One of the hangmen later said: "The youngest was last. We thought they would be so frightened they would recant. We said to them, 'just say you are not a Baha'i and we will let you go'. They all preferred to die."

But one woman escaped execution. Olya Roohizadegan, a leading member of Iran's Baha'i community, had been arrested a year earlier at gunpoint, but was released just weeks before her friends were killed on June 18, 1983.

On a whim the Iranian government exchanged her freedom for the deeds to her home and, grabbing her chance, she, her husband Morad and their young son Payam, fled to Pakistan and then later to England.

Olya and her family now live in Australia but today in Edinburgh she will continue her crusade to draw the world's attention to the plight of the Baha'i people living in Iran.

The Iranian Majiis and their government may have relaxed some of their harsher rules since the bloody days of the 1978 revolution, but Baha'is are still regarded as traitors .

There are nearly half a million Baha'is living in Iran, where their religion began in 1844. Even then Baha'is were regarded as heretics and their first prophet, the Bab, was executed in 1850. His death was followed by a bloody massacre of 20,000 of his followers - and the slaughter continues. Less than two years ago, Ruhollah Rowhani , a 52-year-old father-of-four was executed after being accused of converting a Muslim to the Baha'i religion, and there are two Iranian Baha'is currently under threat of death.

It is their plight and the memory of her ten dead friends that drives Olya to tour the world, telling listeners of the persecution suffered by her fellow countrymen.

SHE explains her mission with palpable feeling. "When I was in prison with my ten friends I promised that if I ever escaped I would tell the world their story.

"Even though they died 17 years ago, I can still hear their voices and I want people to know that they committed no crime. I want governments to know what happened in Iran on June 18, 1983 and I want them to know what is still happening there."

Olya was a mother with a top government post when a wave of religious fundamentalism swept hernative country after the Shah was deposed.

In the turbulent years that followed Olya sent her two sons to school in Oxford out of harm's way, she became pregnant with her third son Payam and was sacked from her job with the National Iranian Oil Company.

She saw friends, neighbours and relatives imprisoned, tortured and executed, but despite the risks , Olya became a leading member of the Baha'i Protection Committee - set up to help those most under threat.

She visited prisoners, supported grieving relatives and relayed news of the atrocities to the outside world. It was only a matter of time before she too was arrested. On November 29, 1982 she was seized along with her ten friends and forty other Baha'is.

But despite the horrors of Olya's time in prison, where she and her friends were tortured in a crude attempt to get them to recant their faith , she can find it in her heart to forgive her tormentors.

"I forgive them. They are fanatics, who are frightened by our faith and its message of peace ," she says.

Edinburgh Baha'is are delighted to play host to Olya, regarded by many as a holy woman and she, in turn, is enchanted by the city.

This is her second visit. She came four years ago on a pilgrimage to a most unlikely spot - Charlotte Square. In 1913, the then spiritual leader, Abdu'l-Baha, visited the Edinburgh address and the house where he stayed is now a shrine.

OLYA is staying with Ismael Velasco and his family in their flat in Wester Hailes. He can hardly contain his excitement. "Meeting Olya is, to us, the equivalent of meeting the companions of the early Islamic martyrs.

"Her visit is a special gift that brings us closer to the spirit of our faith. She is, quite simply, an inspiration."

Olya is indeed a remarkable woman, free from bitterness prejudice. But perhaps her attitude is not surprising, given the tenets of her faith. In the eyes of a Baha'i all humans are equal. They argue for world peace and the abolition of all forms of prejudice.

There are around six million Baha'is across the world, with around 50 members of the community in Edinburgh.

At the beginning of the 21st century it seems almost incredible that innocent men and women are still being persecuted for their faith. But Olya is hopeful for the future.

She says: "We are all one people, all one religion. We achieve nothing by fighting each other."

©Copyright 2000, Evening News (Scotland)

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