Bahai News - Iran continues persecution of Bahais
Iran continues persecution of Bahais
Bahais' marriages are not recognized by the government,
and their children are considered illegitimate.
By WAVENEY ANN MOORE
© St. Petersburg Times, published August 1, 1998
Here in St. Petersburg, Ramin Sobhian wonders whether his uncle,
Hedayat Kashefi Najafabadi could be next.
Seminole lawyer Sepideh Eskandari thanks God for the religious
freedom of America. She also speaks reverently of the "martyrs" in her
Sobhian and Eskandari are among the approximately 10,000 Persian
Bahais who have sought religious asylum in the United States during the
past 19 years, said Glen Fullmer, a spokesman for the National Spiritual
Assembly of the Bahais of the United States. For many, their arrival in
this country came at the end of harrowing, secret overland trips.
Slightly more than a dozen Persian Bahais have made the Tampa Bay
area their home. Among the most recent arrivals are Eskandari's cousin
and his wife, neither of whom would speak publicly of their ordeal for
fear of endangering relatives still in Iran.
Sitting in their Tyrone-area apartment, Eskandari spoke of her own
escape in 1979, her cousins' hardships in the intervening years and the
reasons Bahais refuse to denounce their faith even when threatened with
"If they are faced with the choice of their lives or their faith .
. . they cannot make a choice, because their life is their faith," she
said. "They cannot separate the two."
And those who lose their lives for their beliefs have received a
special calling, she added.
"Really, it's an honor."
Bahais in Iran have been subject to increasing persecution since
fundamentalist Muslims seized power in 1979. The Bahai faith is not
recognized under the country's constitution.
The Iranian government regards the Bahai community of 300,000 to
350,000 members as a "misguided sect," the U.S. State Department said in
a January human rights report. The United States has no diplomatic
relationship with Iran.
"Bahais may not teach or practice their faith or maintain links
with co-religionists abroad," the department report said.
"Broad restrictions on the Bahais appear to be geared to
destroying them as a community," the report continues. "For example,
Bahai marriages are not recognized by the government, leaving Bahai
women open to charges of prostitution. Children of Bahai marriages are
not recognized as legitimate and, therefore, are denied inheritance
"Bahai sacred and historical properties have been systematically
confiscated and some have been destroyed. Group meetings and religious
education are severely curtailed. Universities continue to deny
admittance to Bahai students . . . Bahais are prohibited from government
It is a life Sobhian left at 15. His parents and younger brother
remained behind. The 31-year-old Eckerd College information technology
manager has not seen them since.
He and his parents agreed that he should leave, said Sobhian, who
arrived in the U.S. in 1983.
After the 1979 revolution, the situation became increasingly
grave, he recalled.
His father, an anesthesiologist, lost his job at a government
"My uncle, who right now is in prison, was a bank manager. He lost
his job," Sobhian said.
According to the State Department, thousands of Bahais who were
dismissed from government jobs in the early 1980s receive no
These former government workers "have been required to repay the
government for salaries or pensions received from the first day of
employment. Those unable to do so face prison sentences," the department
Still, Bahais in Iran draw strength from each other, Sobhian said.
"Any community, when you are put to the test, it binds you. It
brings you closer together," he said.
While he lived in Iran, "Whoever had resources, you just helped,"
he recalled. "That is to a great extent how the Bahai community
Sobhian keeps in touch with his family through letters and
telephone calls. The government once imprisoned his parents, he said,
and now his uncle is among seven Bahais sentenced to death.
"They were arrested at an education class that was being held for
younger Bahais. That was the crime," Sobhian said. "What I understand is
that the children that were in the class were sentenced to five years in
prison. It was a suspended sentence."
Ruhollah Rowhani, 52, a medical supplies salesman and father of
four, was not as lucky. Accused of converting a Muslim woman to the
Bahai faith, he was executed on July 21.
His was the first known execution of a Bahai since 1992. Both the
White House and State Department condemned the execution.
"The world has been encouraged by the recent statements from
Iranian leaders about the need for rule of law and the rights of
individuals," the White House statement said. "Such words have little
meaning so long as the human rights of the Iranian people, including the
right to worship freely, are not upheld, and until the persecution of
and violence against Iranians of the Bahai faith stops."
Bahais are not alone as victims.
Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians also suffer from what the State
Department refers to as "officially sanctioned discrimination."
Additionally, the department stated in its January report,
although the government permits Jews to travel abroad, "it often denies
them the multiple-exit permits normally issued to other citizens." It
also does not permit all members of a Jewish family to travel at the
Oppression of evangelical Christians continued in 1997, the year
for which the report was written, the State Department said.
That year, two visiting Christian evangelists, Daniel Baumann and
Stuart Timm, were arrested and detained under suspicion of espionage.
They were released without being charged.
Eskandari referred to a Bahai teaching for dealing with
persecution. "If they poison you, return it with honey," she said.
"Honey is symbolic. It means love. Love them back."
Bahais believe that Moses, Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed belong to a
line of divine messengers, the most recent of whom is their faith's
Adherents of the worldwide religion say God's next messenger will
appear in another 1,000 years. They believe in one god, one race and one
religion and are advocates of world peace, equal treatment for all
people and universal education.
Bahaullah, the Persian-born founder of the 154-year-old faith, was
imprisoned several times and died in exile. Despite his life of
hardship, he taught his followers, who number 5-million, to bear no
hatred toward those who wrong them.
It is a lesson Eskandari, who was in elementary school when she
arrived in St. Petersburg during the hostage crisis, has heeded. She
remembers being ostracized, not for being Bahai, but for being from
When her cousin's 28-year-old wife was flogged with other Bahai
women in an Iranian prison, "they had made this agreement among
themselves that they would not shed a tear," Eskandari said. The woman
bears scars from the beatings, she said. That her faith remained strong
is no surprise, Eskandari said.
"It goes to what you believe religion to be," Sobhian said.
"If you believe in religion as the word of God, as the word of
that divine, omnipotent, all-powerful essence, you have no choice. Once
you believe that, then life on this planet is transitory," he said.
"Life is great, and it is not to be taken for granted. But life on
this planet is not the end all . . . If we make compromises, then that
is not doing ourselves any good and the consequences of that is much
more grave than any suffering we can endure here."
©Copyright 2000, St. Petersburg Times
Page last updated/revised 030400
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