Bahai News - Faithful to a Heritage

Faithful to a Heritage

* A historian puts his Bahai background and convicmo work on a Congress-created panel for international religious freedom.


The roots of Firuz Kazemzadeh's passion for religious freedom are depicted in a grainy, century-old photo.

The photo, published in a report on a minority faith xgroup in Iran known as Bahais, shows four grim-faced males in chains. One was later stabbed to death, another strangled for refusing to renounce their faith; the other two were released.

They were early adherents of a faith movement built on religious and racial unity that has since spread to more than 5 million followers in 235 countries. And they were Kazemzadeh's ancestors. Kazemzadeh, a retired professor of Russian history who lives in Alta Loma, is in a high-profile position to speak out against modern-day instances of such religious oppression. In June, he was reappointed to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

The nine-member commission was created by Congress in 1998 to raise the profile of the religious freedom issue and give independent recommendations about it to lawmakers and the U.S. government. Since then, the commission has held hearings and issued reports about religious oppression in countries ranging from Sudan to India to China. Although the commission has not changed practices overnight--the White House has sometimes ignored its recommendations, and places such as Egypt have criticized its work as "meddling"--Kazemzadeh is certain of an eventual impact.

"Since I am a historian, I see that all great historical changes take time," said Kazemzadeh, 76, during a recent interview in his home, a one-floor rambler filled with Chinese and Japanese art.

"The commission is no panacea, but the very fact that it exists creates a consciousness, a mental state, that will promote the worldwide struggle for religious freedom," he said.

Kazemzadeh was first appointed to the commission in 1999 after a distinguished academic career at Yale and his work promoting Bahai religious freedom brought him to President Bill Clinton's attention.

Born in Moscow as the son of an Iranian diplomat, Kazemzadeh grew up acutely aware of repression. He lived through the "Stalinist terrors" of the 1930s and watched classmates lose their parents to purges and friends suffer through torture. But he also lived in the "magic glass jar" of diplomatic immunity and recalls outlandish luxuries during the time: seaside vacations in Latvia, Polish ham and barrels of sweet butter.

He came to the United States in 1944 to study European history at Stanford and overcame his English-language handicaps--and initial Ds in biology and economics--to graduate Phi Beta Kappa. He earned a doctorate in Russian history at Harvard, then briefly worked for Voice of America and at Harvard's Center for Middle East Studies program. In 1956, he took a job teaching Russian history at Yale and remained there until his retirement in 1992.

Throughout his life, he has stayed active in Bahai affairs, serving as a member of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahais of the United States from 1963 to last year. A major focus of Kazemzadeh and his wife, Wilma Ellis, has been working for Bahai religious freedom. A century after Kazemzadeh's great-grandfather and uncle perished, Bahais are still being persecuted in Iran and denied religious legitimacy in places such as Egypt and Russia, he said.

In Iran, where the religion was founded in 1844, persecution was most acute in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic revolution, Kazemzadeh said. At least 214 Bahais have been killed since then, and others are still in prison. Because they are not recognized under Islamic law, all Bahais are regarded as "unprotected infidels" and denied pensions, inheritances, entrance to universities, government jobs, and other civil and legal rights, according to Ellen Wheeler of the U.S. Bahai National Spiritual Assembly in New York.

Among other things, the Bahai belief that the religion's founder, Bahaullah, was a divine prophet sent to bring a new revelation conflicts with the Islamic creed that the prophet Muhammad was God's last messenger.

In a recent visit to Egypt, Kazemzadeh said, the nation's attorney general told commission members that Bahais were not allowed to propagate their faith there because it was not regarded as one of the three "heavenly religions" of Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

In contrast, Bahais accept all religions as "different chapters in a continuous book of divine revelation," as Kazemzadeh put it. Members believe God sent messengers to different places at different times with revelations needed for the age. Bahaullah's revelation included the oneness of all people, equality for women and men, universal education, and the elimination of war. In the United States, the 140,000-member community is focusing on projects to promote racial unity and youth education.

The Bahai embrace of all peoples and religious paths was readily apparent at a recent Sunday devotional meeting at the Los Angeles Bahai Center at Rodeo Drive and La Cienega Avenue.

The worship room, featuring a large painting of Bahaullah and a table with flickering candles, was packed with a multiracial crowd of more than 150 people. Five "readers" offered prayers from Hinduism, Christianity, an African tradition and other religious paths. The faith has no clergy and rotates presentations among members, so Jackie McLane, a teacher in Compton, gave the day's talk on developing the virtues of courage, kindness, creativity and patience.

Some members, like Kazemzadeh, are born into Bahai families. Others, such as retired secretary Joyce Watanabe, embraced the faith in later years. Watanabe, a Gardena resident whose nominally Buddhist parents sent her to Christian Sunday school, said she was drawn by the religion's "common sense," affection among members and embrace of all religious paths.

"It didn't compete with other religions and didn't say your religion is wrong and the Bahai faith is right," said Watanabe, who became a Bahai in 1965.

To Kazemzadeh, that all-embracing message remains unheeded in much of the world. He says his commission work has taught him that religious freedom is denied more frequently throughout the world than one might expect--even in democratic countries such as India--and that religious leaders themselves are often the instigators of that repression.

Despite U.S. attempts to elevate the issue, religious freedom remains a relatively low priority in the human rights movement, Kazemzadeh says.

"Everyone wants to monopolize the truth," he said, "but the Bahai position is that where you have human beings with some notion of right and wrong, you have evidence of divine inspiration."

©Copyright 2001, Los Angles Times

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