by Sarah Zimmerman, Staff Writer
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Gwinnett Section)
Ninous Zamani has a seemingly simple request for churches observing today's International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. "Pray for the rulers in place to treat everybody with kindness," the new Duluth resident said through an interpreter, her brother-in-law, Frank Lewis. Experience tells her, however, that kindness is not as easy as it sounds.
Born in Iran, Zamani is a member of the Baha'i Faith, one of several groups subject to religious persecution in the Muslim-dominated country. When she was in middle school, Zamani refused to be part of a political demonstration because Baha'is do not participate in partisan government activities. Zamani and 11 other Baha'i students were expelled for the rest of the school year - seven months.
Although Zamani could not attend a university in Iran, she participated in a correspondence school for Baha'i students. Her hand-written thesis is on Baha'is teachings regarding kindness.
In addition to the missed educational opportunities, it was difficult to find work because of her faith, Zamani said. Her father, a leader of the Baha'i Faith in Iran, was denied his retirement benefits.
Zamani's parents sent her older sister, Foruzan, to the United States in 1979 to continue her education. Foruzan met Lewis at a Baha'i conference in 1986, and the couple married the next year. They moved to Dulth in 1997 when Lewis took a job as professor of Persian languages at Emory University.
After they married, the Lewises began applying for visas to return to Iran to visit family members. They were told their Baha'i wedding ceremony was not valid and they would have to be married in a mosque. A Muslim marriage ceremony would require denying their Baha'i Faith, and they were not willing to do that for a passport.
In the meantime, Zamani was in Iran with her parents, who would not leave the country without her. The family's visa applications were repeatedly turned down on the basis of their religious preference. "For nine years they applied and were denied passports, "Lewis said.
Finally, Zamani was helped through the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which classified her as a religious refugee. She moved to Austria in March, having to go to another country before coming to the United States because Iran does not have a U.S. embassy. She arrived in Duluth September 10, and it was the first time she had seen her sister in 19 years.
Zamani's father was permitted to leave Iran, and he now lives in Houston. Zamani's mother left Iran in September and moved to Italy to await permission to come to the United States. She developed acute leukemia, however, and died two weeks later. Because the passports took so long to secure, "I was never able to meet my mother-in-law, and she was never able to meet our children," Lewis said.
The Baha'i Faith, founded in 19th century Iran, which was then called Persia, stresses the oneness of God, religion and humankind, believing that humanity is one family created by God. The Baha'i community is known for promoting unity and world peace.
Often the persecution of Baha'i adherents in Iran is more life-threatening than what Zamani experienced. More than 200 Baha'i leaders have been executed in Iran since 1979, according to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States. In July, a 52-year old medical supplies salesman and father of four was hanged for his beliefs.
International Christian Concern, the group promoting the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, focuses on persecution of Christians living in free societies "have been largely unaware or silent to this increasing tragedy." Christians in 60 countries face persecution ranging from massacre to slavery, according to the group.
Last year, churches in 115 countries participated in the day of prayer. Hebron Baptist Church in Dacula is participating this year, with a special prayer time included in tonight's worship service. Persecution will also be the subject of a prayer meeting Nov. 21
Zamani recommends that churches pray that "the leaders of countries will be just rulers. Mankind needs to realize we are one species. We are really brothers and sisters. The only way to survive is to concentrate on how to help each other rather than hurt each other."