Faith Under FireNassar Rohani tells of Iran's attempt to destroy the intellectual and cultural life of its Baha'i community
By LYNN ASCRIZZI
©Copyright 1998 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.
Rohani, 42, a computer programmer/analyst for L. L. Bean's information service department in Freeport, was born and grew up in Iran. As a member of the Baha'i faith, whose adherents number about 350,000 in Iran and 6 million worldwide, Rohani has experienced religious persecution, firsthand.
"The present Iranian government regards Baha'is as people who should be Muslim," says Rohani, a United States citizen since 1991.
"Baha'is don't have any rights, because under the present constitution, only four religions are protected - Islam, Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism. Those outside these four faiths are not protected," he says.
"Even during the time of the shah, had they known you were Baha'i, they expelled you from work. During the (Iranian) revolution, when Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in 1979, they required Baha'is to tell their faith. And because Baha'is don't deny their faith, they expelled those already working."
The most recent attack occurred this past October with an Iranian crackdown on the Baha'i Institute of Higher Education (BIHE), a unique, decentralized university begun in 1987, in reaction to the banning of Baha'is from Iranian universities in the early 1980s.
"My nephew was a student of this university and another was about to attend," says Rohani. "Many of my relatives were going to that university or planned to go. Now, they are deprived of that."
Rohani grew up during pre-revolutionary Iran. He was often singled out at school.
"In every class, there were at least one to three Baha'i students. It was not very many. Sometimes I was the only one," he says.
"When we had religious classes, the teacher would ask, 'who are the Bahai's?' I would stand up, and the teacher would ridicule the Baha'i faith in front of all the students. They would laugh. I was a small child - about age 8 or 9. Children are just cruel. But, it's not children who are bad; it's the parents who teach them these thing, like racism. I had very good Moslem friends."
The incidents made him stronger, he says.
"I remember one time, I did something bad with other kids. The teacher sent us to the principal's office. The principal kicked me and slapped me, because I was a Baha'i. That taught me, and made me a good student."
Rohani left Iran in 1974 to study commerce at Osmania University in southern India.
"My intention was, after my education, to go back to Iran and work in the banking field. But that didn't happen."
Instead, when Khomeini came into power, Rohani, then working on his master's degree in India, suddenly found himself an exile.
"When I went to renew my passport, the Iranian government asked me to (publicly) recant my faith in two newspapers - one in Teheran (Iran's capital) and one in India. That was when I decided - no - I have to seek another residence. At that time, I was stateless, because the Iranian government refused to accept my passport and recognize me as an Iranian citizen. I still have my canceled passport."
During this crisis, Rohani's Iranian parents, including those of his wife, Parivash, lost their homes, jobs and possessions. And, India did not hold bright prospects for him.
"India had a 40 percent unemployment rate," he says. In 1988, he and his wife and young daughter, Ideh, migrated to California. "We had absolutely nothing," he says. They borrowed small amounts of money from friends and relatives. They decided to move northeast.
"We had a Persian friend in Brunswick. We bought a car to be able to go for a job. I got a job at L. L. Bean in five days, stocking shelves at night on the third shift. Parivash was working at night, making clothing. When I came home, she went to work, and I'd take care of Ideh. I was always tired, but I never resented it. In a matter of six months, I got a job in accounting. After three years, I studied computing at the University of Maine at Augusta.
"L. L. Bean was very good to me. I had good managers, real human beings. Managers advised me, helped me to progress," he says.
SHUTDOWN OF A UNIVERSITY
Since 1980, more than 200 Baha'is have been killed because of their religious beliefs, according to information from the Baha'i National Assembly's Office of the Secretary for External Affairs, in Washington, D.C..
Baha'i cemeteries throughout Iran have been seized and desecrated. Baha'i marriages, recognized in the United States and most other countries, are not recognized in Iran, opening women to charges of prostitution.
"Baha'is in Iran today are not given any official job. If a person is not self-employed, he is really badly affected," Rohani says.
But today, persecution of Iranian Baha'i communities has taken a new twist, he says.
"The persecution is systematic. It is not mass killing. That would backfire on the government. . . . They want to systematically eradicate, not allow members to learn about their religion, not allow them to go to college or get jobs."
The recent shutdown of the Baha'i university, BIHE, widely reported in international news media, is an ominous event, Rohani believes.
Underscoring his fear, is the execution, for religious reasons, of Ruhollah Rowhani, a 52-year-old medical supplies salesman hanged in Mashhad in July, the first Baha'i to be executed in Iran since 1992.
Two more prisoners, jailed for taking part in religious gatherings, have had their death sentences confirmed.
The execution, arrests and crackdown on BIHE have been strongly condemned by the United States, a recent release from the U.S. State Department, said.
The university operated with extreme discretion, functioning like a correspondence school but with its own delivery system. Until September 1998, BIHE had enrolled about 1,000 students and had a faculty of 150 professional academics and instructors, many of whom had been fired from university positions after the revolution.
Its "infrastructure" was composed of classrooms, laboratories and libraries scattered throughout Iran in private homes and buildings. Faculty, many of whom included doctors, dentists, lawyers and engineers, were unpaid volunteers. The majority were educated in Iran, but many held degrees from the United States, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Columbia University, the University of California at Berkeley and also from the Sorbonne, according to Baha'i sources. Entrance exams were required; high standards were established.
"Begun on a private scale, the institute grew to include 10 areas of major, including civil engineering, computer science, psychology and English. Courses were by correspondence but included sessions with lecturers in private homes," an Oct. 29 article in The New York Times, reported.
In one day, some 500 homes and several office buildings were raided. Materials seized were not political or religious tracts, but textbooks and laboratory equipment.
"The highly decentralized university networked with Indiana University, where "professors . . . provided course materials and curriculum advice and American Baha'is on visits to Iran would carry suitcases stuffed with textbooks bought at the Harvard Coop," the article said.
The BIHE system featured a network of special depository libraries around the country. Numbering more than 45, these libraries existed in the private homes of Baha'is and enabled students in each district to access necessary textbooks. Some libraries were seized in recent raids.
In the nationwide sting, 36 BIHE teachers were arrested in 14 cities throughout Iran. Baha'i representatives say that the detainees were asked to sign a document declaring that BIHE had ceased to exist and that they would no longer cooperate with it. They refused to sign any such declaration. Later, all but two of those arrested were released.
"If you look at the reality - the core of the Baha'i community in Iran is shaken," says Rohani, "because each and every family has somehow been affected."