BY LIZ SZABO,
VIRGINIA BEACH -- Vahid Ghofrani's sister was the gentlest of women. A high school teacher, a devoted mother, a pure soul.
But because she was also a devout Baha'i, she was murdered by Islamic fundamentalists in her native Iran, following the 1979 revolution. Ghofrani, along with his wife and four children, fled Iran for Africa just in time to save their own lives.
Today, on one of the holiest days of the year for Baha'is, Ghofrani and other local believers will remember the hundreds of people who have died for their faith, and those who suffer still. On the birthday of their religion's founder, Baha'u'llah, they will pray for the end of religious persecution and for the day when everyone will have the freedoms enjoyed in the United States.
"This is the Baha'i way," Ghofrani said. "You must love everyone."
The Baha'i religion, a monotheistic faith that began in Iran 154 years ago, stresses the unity of all people and beliefs, the need for world peace and the end of prejudice. Many of the area's 200 Baha'is celebrated their faith together Wednesday night at Tidewater Community College, reading prayers and sharing dinner in the cafeteria, colorfully decorated with balloons, streamers and flowers.
For Baha'is, Baha'u'llah's birthday is as important as Christmas is to Christians, said Frank Lustwerk-Dudas, spokesman for Baha'is in Norfolk.
Several dozen people -- black, white, Middle Eastern -- attended the celebration. Three generations of the Ghofrani family -- as well as many other families with young children -- were there.
Because their religion is relatively young, Baha'is have not developed many traditions for their holidays. Their celebrations are simple -- scripture readings, music, a potluck supper. Most holiday celebrations reflect the culture and personality of local communities, rather than universal Baha'i traditions, he said.
Baha'is also have no clergy to propagate traditions.
Although most Americans are unfamiliar with the Baha'i religion, Ghofrani and his wife, Olya, have more freedom to practice their faith here than in Iran, where Baha'is are the largest religious minority. Ghofrani's mother and surviving sister still live there.
Baha'is have been persecuted as heretics rather than as dissidents. They do not believe in political involvement, Ghofrani said. His sister was arrested, tortured and hanged because she taught religious education at a weekly Baha'i school.
"Baha'is have always had a hard time in Iran," said Pat Eelman, a local Baha'i. "Recently they have gone through more intensive persecution.... They (the Iranian government) consistently try to deny Baha'is privileges in their own country."
Baha'is are not permitted to attend college in Iran, Eelman said. The Iranian government recently shut down an underground Baha'i university, arresting many professors who had secretly been teaching engineering, pharmacology and other subjects.
Most Baha'is in Hampton Roads are American converts, she said, and have never known such persecution. Yet Eelman and others sympathize: "As an American, you are even more taken aback by something like that."
In spite of persecution, Ghofrani said, Baha'is have not lost their faith. His sister never recanted her beliefs. "When something is true and good, you give your life. . . . The voice of God -- nothing can stop it. Nothing can stop it."
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