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Faith column: More people waking up to Iran’s persecution of Baha’is

February 20, 2010

The latest column on Iran’s unrelenting campaign of persecution against the Baha’is (and really anyone suspected of dissident thought). The sad thing so many of us don’t know who the Baha’is are and just what is happening under this religious dictatorship. Hopefully that is beginning to change. Hopefully more people will become aware and try to learn more and decide to speak out. I don’t know what the future holds, but the Iranian tyrants get scarier by the day.

Local religious community joins with local Baha’is to support persecuted Baha’is in Iran

An awakening is taking place in Austin. Two weeks ago, on a dreary Sunday afternoon, dozens of people packed the Austin Baha’i Center to show their support for a group of ordinary Iranians facing a hellish ordeal.

Most of the people there already knew of the seven Baha’is facing trial and possible execution for charges that include espionage for Israel and corruption on the earth, an accusation the government uses to paint Baha’is as dangerous heretics. Most of them were painfully aware, some from firsthand experience, of the religious persecution that Iran’s 300,000 Baha’is suffer daily. The beatings and false imprisonment. The secret executions. The rejection from universities and jobs.

But on that Sunday, it seemed the world was waking up. Christians and Jews and Muslims came and listened. They heard the names of the seven accused. Among them, Mahvash Sabet, teacher and mother of two; Vahid Tizfahm, optometrist and father of a 9-year-old boy; Jamaloddin Khanjani, businessman and grandfather of six.

Rabbis and ministers preached about the injustice in their weekend services. And later that week, two Iranians — a Muslim and a Baha’i — and a Jewish leader spread the word further on KOOP radio show Idea Lounge. I joined them to talk about the situation from a journalist’s perspective.

What strikes me most is that as concerned as most of us are about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and human rights injustices, the plight of the Baha’is somehow has escaped our collective attention.

Part of the problem is that many of us have never heard of the religion.

The Baha’i faith emerged from Islam in mid-19th century Persia (modern-day Iran) when the prophet Baha’u’llah told followers that all religions were one and that God had progressively revealed a message through various prophets, including Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad and others. Baha’ullah preached unity of humankind, gender equality and world peace.

Today, about 7 million people belong to the Baha’i faith worldwide, but the religion was banned in Iran after the 1979 revolution when the secular shah was ousted and the Islamic Republic was established. Many of the Shiite leaders consider any revelation after the prophet Muhammad to be heretical. Baha’is say they are sometimes offered emancipation from prison or admission to college if they recant their religion.

As I write this, several more Baha’is have been arrested and are likely to be charged with anti-government activity.

When asked on the radio if he felt different as a Baha’i child in the small Iranian town of Zavareh, Bijan Masumian sadly told the audience that his story of persecution began while he was still in the womb. His pregnant mother was forced to jump off a wall while fleeing a mob attack on her Baha’i neighborhood. Today, Masumian’s cousin is among the seven standing trial in Iran.

But as members of the faith are quick to point out, Baha’is are not the only victims of Iran’s tyranny. Muslims, Jews, Christians and those who do not profess a faith have also suffered at the hands of the Iranian government.

Look at last year’s violent crackdown on young people protesting the presidential election results. Or the beatings of anti-government demonstrators marking the 31st anniversary of the revolution this month.

Ask Nastaran Kherad, a Muslim who appeared on the KOOP program. After the revolution, her brother was held for 28 months, tortured and finally executed at age 24 for his political beliefs. She said she was imprisoned and tortured at age 18 for reading pamphlets.

As my friend and radio host Khotan Shahbazi-Harmon continues to stress, this is not just a Baha’i issue, it’s a human rights issue.

Shahbazi-Harmon, a Baha’i who also has Muslim and Jewish roots and who fled Iran after the 1979 revolution, knows from her faith and experience in the world that justice requires collaboration with people of all faiths.

It’s why the Baha’is are so grateful to Christians, Jews, Muslims and others who stood in solidarity with them two weeks ago.

Longtime Austin peace activist Mary Berwick, who attended the Baha’i service, said her Catholic faith tells her that “God is the god of all peoples and all faiths and all religions.”

For her, being silent is not an option.

Nor is it for Rabbi Neil Blumofe, who knows how lethal the world’s silence can be.

“There are still graveyards in Europe and ashes in the sky that are my ancestors,” he said on Shahbazi-Harmon’s show.

But it’s more than the memory of the Holocaust that motivates Jews, he said. The Book of Deuteronomy states clearly: “Justice, justice you must pursue.”

People paying close attention to the trial of the seven Baha’is say the situation continues to be overshadowed by headlines about Iran’s nuclear program. They say the Iranian government does this intentionally, trying to distract the world from the human rights abuses they are perpetrating.

That tells me we need to be smarter. We need to penetrate what Shahbazi-Harmon calls the dark cloud of ignorance. We, all of us, she said, need to be points of light, shining through the darkness until there is no place for injustice to hide

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Dale and Melissa Fowler permalink
    February 21, 2010 11:38 am

    We think you article is thoughtful and well-written. You have captured the essence of a serious problem and put it in local, human terms. We have admired your work often before, but your message today was too important and too well articulated to let pass without commentary. Thank you for drawing attention to what otherwise might be the continued quiet but deadly persecution of Baha’is in Iran. Your effort to shine the light on this injustice is superb.

    • eeflynn permalink*
      February 21, 2010 1:08 pm

      Dear Dale and Melissa,

      What an encouraging note. Thank you so much for reading and for taking the time to respond. You made my day.

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