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Iran continues persecution of Bahais

Bahais' marriages are not recognized by the government, and their children are considered illegitimate.


© St. Petersburg Times, published August 1, 1998

Here in St. Petersburg, Ramin Sobhian wonders whether his uncle, Hedayat Kashefi Najafabadi could be next.

Seminole lawyer Sepideh Eskandari thanks God for the religious freedom of America. She also speaks reverently of the "martyrs" in her homeland.

Sobhian and Eskandari are among the approximately 10,000 Persian Bahais who have sought religious asylum in the United States during the past 19 years, said Glen Fullmer, a spokesman for the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahais of the United States. For many, their arrival in this country came at the end of harrowing, secret overland trips.

Slightly more than a dozen Persian Bahais have made the Tampa Bay area their home. Among the most recent arrivals are Eskandari's cousin and his wife, neither of whom would speak publicly of their ordeal for fear of endangering relatives still in Iran.

Sitting in their Tyrone-area apartment, Eskandari spoke of her own escape in 1979, her cousins' hardships in the intervening years and the reasons Bahais refuse to denounce their faith even when threatened with persecution.

"If they are faced with the choice of their lives or their faith . . . they cannot make a choice, because their life is their faith," she said. "They cannot separate the two."

And those who lose their lives for their beliefs have received a special calling, she added.

"Really, it's an honor."

Bahais in Iran have been subject to increasing persecution since fundamentalist Muslims seized power in 1979. The Bahai faith is not recognized under the country's constitution.

The Iranian government regards the Bahai community of 300,000 to 350,000 members as a "misguided sect," the U.S. State Department said in a January human rights report. The United States has no diplomatic relationship with Iran.

"Bahais may not teach or practice their faith or maintain links with co-religionists abroad," the department report said.

"Broad restrictions on the Bahais appear to be geared to destroying them as a community," the report continues. "For example, Bahai marriages are not recognized by the government, leaving Bahai women open to charges of prostitution. Children of Bahai marriages are not recognized as legitimate and, therefore, are denied inheritance rights.

"Bahai sacred and historical properties have been systematically confiscated and some have been destroyed. Group meetings and religious education are severely curtailed. Universities continue to deny admittance to Bahai students . . . Bahais are prohibited from government employment."

It is a life Sobhian left at 15. His parents and younger brother remained behind. The 31-year-old Eckerd College information technology manager has not seen them since.

He and his parents agreed that he should leave, said Sobhian, who arrived in the U.S. in 1983.

After the 1979 revolution, the situation became increasingly grave, he recalled.

His father, an anesthesiologist, lost his job at a government hospital.

"My uncle, who right now is in prison, was a bank manager. He lost his job," Sobhian said.

According to the State Department, thousands of Bahais who were dismissed from government jobs in the early 1980s receive no unemployment benefits.

These former government workers "have been required to repay the government for salaries or pensions received from the first day of employment. Those unable to do so face prison sentences," the department said.

Still, Bahais in Iran draw strength from each other, Sobhian said.

"Any community, when you are put to the test, it binds you. It brings you closer together," he said.

While he lived in Iran, "Whoever had resources, you just helped," he recalled. "That is to a great extent how the Bahai community survived."

Sobhian keeps in touch with his family through letters and telephone calls. The government once imprisoned his parents, he said, and now his uncle is among seven Bahais sentenced to death.

"They were arrested at an education class that was being held for younger Bahais. That was the crime," Sobhian said. "What I understand is that the children that were in the class were sentenced to five years in prison. It was a suspended sentence."

Ruhollah Rowhani, 52, a medical supplies salesman and father of four, was not as lucky. Accused of converting a Muslim woman to the Bahai faith, he was executed on July 21.

His was the first known execution of a Bahai since 1992. Both the White House and State Department condemned the execution.

"The world has been encouraged by the recent statements from Iranian leaders about the need for rule of law and the rights of individuals," the White House statement said. "Such words have little meaning so long as the human rights of the Iranian people, including the right to worship freely, are not upheld, and until the persecution of and violence against Iranians of the Bahai faith stops."

Bahais are not alone as victims.

Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians also suffer from what the State Department refers to as "officially sanctioned discrimination."

Additionally, the department stated in its January report, although the government permits Jews to travel abroad, "it often denies them the multiple-exit permits normally issued to other citizens." It also does not permit all members of a Jewish family to travel at the same time.

Oppression of evangelical Christians continued in 1997, the year for which the report was written, the State Department said.

That year, two visiting Christian evangelists, Daniel Baumann and Stuart Timm, were arrested and detained under suspicion of espionage. They were released without being charged.

Eskandari referred to a Bahai teaching for dealing with persecution. "If they poison you, return it with honey," she said. "Honey is symbolic. It means love. Love them back."

Bahais believe that Moses, Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed belong to a line of divine messengers, the most recent of whom is their faith's founder, Bahaullah.

Adherents of the worldwide religion say God's next messenger will appear in another 1,000 years. They believe in one god, one race and one religion and are advocates of world peace, equal treatment for all people and universal education.

Bahaullah, the Persian-born founder of the 154-year-old faith, was imprisoned several times and died in exile. Despite his life of hardship, he taught his followers, who number 5-million, to bear no hatred toward those who wrong them.

It is a lesson Eskandari, who was in elementary school when she arrived in St. Petersburg during the hostage crisis, has heeded. She remembers being ostracized, not for being Bahai, but for being from Iran.

When her cousin's 28-year-old wife was flogged with other Bahai women in an Iranian prison, "they had made this agreement among themselves that they would not shed a tear," Eskandari said. The woman bears scars from the beatings, she said. That her faith remained strong is no surprise, Eskandari said.

"It goes to what you believe religion to be," Sobhian said.

"If you believe in religion as the word of God, as the word of that divine, omnipotent, all-powerful essence, you have no choice. Once you believe that, then life on this planet is transitory," he said.

"Life is great, and it is not to be taken for granted. But life on this planet is not the end all . . . If we make compromises, then that is not doing ourselves any good and the consequences of that is much more grave than any suffering we can endure here."

©Copyright 2000, St. Petersburg Times

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