THEY broke into Olya Roohizadegan's office and told her she would lose her job if she did not renounce the Baha'i Faith and become a Muslim.
She refused. The Iranian police put her in the front seat of a squad car with a gun against the back of her head. They took her to prison blindfolded. Her cell was cold and damp. She had only a small blanket to keep herself warm.
Then, every day from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., the police interrogated Olya and 10 other women, threatening torture and death if they did not become Muslims. Day after day, they refused. The beatings and insults became more intense, but still no one cracked. Not one woman recanted her gentle faith. Family flees Iran.
Finally, the guards told Olya to tell her husband to bring money and they would release her. But the family checking account had been confiscated along with their home. Finally, they told Olya's husband to bring the deed to the house and she would be released.
He did. Immediately after, the family fled to Pakistan where Bahai people put her in touch with people from the United Nations who gave the family safe passage to London, where she still lives with her husband and son.
Now, she has written a book("Olya's Story: A Survivor's Dramatic Account of the Persecution of Bahais in Revolutionary Iran," OneWorld Publications, $12.95). With the help of Bahais around the world, she is now in the United States to tell her story.
In truth, Olya was the lucky one among the women in that prison. On June 18, 1993, all 10 of Olya's cellmates were hanged. When she heard that news, Olya knew she had to write a book about her experiences.
About 400,000 Bahais live in Iran. And while the imprisonments, torture and executions have slowed because of public pressure from human rights organizations and governments, they still exist. Houses set aflame.
Bahai cemeteries are destroyed, people's houses are set afire, and many people disappear mysteriously every year. "I don't hate them," Olya said during a recent interview. "I forgive them. There is nothing wrong with the Muslim people. There is nothing wrong with their religion. What's wrong is prejudiced people."
Bahais have always been persecuted in Iran. The religion was founded in 1844 by a young merchant who called himself the Bab, which means "gate" in Arabic. The Bab called together people to prepare for the arrival of a messenger from God.
Immediately, Iranian officials were suspicious of the Bahais, and in 1850 the Bab was executed by Iran's Muslim-controlled government. What followed was a massacre of 20,000 Bahais who refused to recant their faith and become Muslims.
But among the Bab's followers was a young man named Mirza Husayn-Ali, who became convinced in 1863 that he was the messenger from God that the Bab had prophesied. He changed his name to Baha'u'llah and became the chief messenger of the faith. Bahai beliefs Over the years, Baha'u'llah wrote prodigiously. Today, his work is collected in a 100-volume set of scripture that forms the foundation of Bahai beliefs.
Bahais believe in the worldwide unity of all races, ethnic groups and religion. They pray for the abandonment of all prejudice and equality between men and women. They want to eliminate extremes of poverty and wealth.
They recognize the value and necessity of universal education and the responsibility for each person to search for truth. They work for a world government based on justice and the need for everyone to adhere to high moral standards.
In other words, these are not mean-spirited people. They are a threat to no government. They believe they can bring about a revolution through prayer and their own decent example.
In most cities in the United States, you will find a small group of Bahais who gather in homes to celebrate Baha'u'llah's vision for the world. They read from his writing, pray and feast together. It would be impossible to find a more gentle, decent and concerned people.
Please pray for the 400,000 Bahais still living in Iran. Join with Bahais around the world and pray that God will eliminate prejudice.
KEYWORDS: RELIGION ETHICS OPINION