Faithful to a Heritage
* A historian puts his Bahai background and convicmo work on a
Congress-created panel for international religious freedom.
By TERESA WATANABE, TIMES RELIGION WRITER
The roots of Firuz Kazemzadeh's passion for religious freedom are
depicted in a grainy, century-old photo.
The photo, published in
a report on a minority faith xgroup in Iran known as Bahais, shows four
grim-faced males in chains. One was later stabbed to death, another
strangled for refusing to renounce their faith; the other two were
They were early adherents of a faith movement built on
religious and racial unity that has since spread to more than 5 million
followers in 235 countries. And they were Kazemzadeh's ancestors.
Kazemzadeh, a retired professor of Russian history who lives in Alta
Loma, is in a high-profile position to speak out against modern-day
instances of such religious oppression. In June, he was reappointed to
the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
nine-member commission was created by Congress in 1998 to raise the
profile of the religious freedom issue and give independent
recommendations about it to lawmakers and the U.S. government. Since
then, the commission has held hearings and issued reports about
religious oppression in countries ranging from Sudan to India to China.
Although the commission has not changed practices overnight--the White
House has sometimes ignored its recommendations, and places such as
Egypt have criticized its work as "meddling"--Kazemzadeh is certain of
an eventual impact.
"Since I am a historian, I see that all great
historical changes take time," said Kazemzadeh, 76, during a recent
interview in his home, a one-floor rambler filled with Chinese and
"The commission is no panacea, but the very fact
that it exists creates a consciousness, a mental state, that will
promote the worldwide struggle for religious freedom," he
Kazemzadeh was first appointed to the commission in 1999
after a distinguished academic career at Yale and his work promoting
Bahai religious freedom brought him to President Bill Clinton's
Born in Moscow as the son of an Iranian diplomat,
Kazemzadeh grew up acutely aware of repression. He lived through the
"Stalinist terrors" of the 1930s and watched classmates lose their
parents to purges and friends suffer through torture. But he also lived
in the "magic glass jar" of diplomatic immunity and recalls outlandish
luxuries during the time: seaside vacations in Latvia, Polish ham and
barrels of sweet butter.
He came to the United States in 1944 to
study European history at Stanford and overcame his English-language
handicaps--and initial Ds in biology and economics--to graduate Phi Beta
Kappa. He earned a doctorate in Russian history at Harvard, then briefly
worked for Voice of America and at Harvard's Center for Middle East
Studies program. In 1956, he took a job teaching Russian history at Yale
and remained there until his retirement in 1992.
life, he has stayed active in Bahai affairs, serving as a member of the
National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahais of the United States from 1963
to last year. A major focus of Kazemzadeh and his wife, Wilma Ellis, has
been working for Bahai religious freedom. A century after Kazemzadeh's
great-grandfather and uncle perished, Bahais are still being persecuted
in Iran and denied religious legitimacy in places such as Egypt and
Russia, he said.
In Iran, where the religion was founded in 1844,
persecution was most acute in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic
revolution, Kazemzadeh said. At least 214 Bahais have been killed since
then, and others are still in prison. Because they are not recognized
under Islamic law, all Bahais are regarded as "unprotected infidels" and
denied pensions, inheritances, entrance to universities, government
jobs, and other civil and legal rights, according to Ellen Wheeler of
the U.S. Bahai National Spiritual Assembly in New York.
other things, the Bahai belief that the religion's founder, Bahaullah,
was a divine prophet sent to bring a new revelation conflicts with the
Islamic creed that the prophet Muhammad was God's last
In a recent visit to Egypt, Kazemzadeh said, the
nation's attorney general told commission members that Bahais were not
allowed to propagate their faith there because it was not regarded as
one of the three "heavenly religions" of Islam, Christianity and
In contrast, Bahais accept all religions as "different
chapters in a continuous book of divine revelation," as Kazemzadeh put
it. Members believe God sent messengers to different places at different
times with revelations needed for the age. Bahaullah's revelation
included the oneness of all people, equality for women and men,
universal education, and the elimination of war. In the United States,
the 140,000-member community is focusing on projects to promote racial
unity and youth education.
The Bahai embrace of all peoples and
religious paths was readily apparent at a recent Sunday devotional
meeting at the Los Angeles Bahai Center at Rodeo Drive and La Cienega
The worship room, featuring a large painting of Bahaullah
and a table with flickering candles, was packed with a multiracial crowd
of more than 150 people. Five "readers" offered prayers from Hinduism,
Christianity, an African tradition and other religious paths. The faith
has no clergy and rotates presentations among members, so Jackie McLane,
a teacher in Compton, gave the day's talk on developing the virtues of
courage, kindness, creativity and patience.
Some members, like
Kazemzadeh, are born into Bahai families. Others, such as retired
secretary Joyce Watanabe, embraced the faith in later years. Watanabe, a
Gardena resident whose nominally Buddhist parents sent her to Christian
Sunday school, said she was drawn by the religion's "common sense,"
affection among members and embrace of all religious paths.
didn't compete with other religions and didn't say your religion is
wrong and the Bahai faith is right," said Watanabe, who became a Bahai
To Kazemzadeh, that all-embracing message remains
unheeded in much of the world. He says his commission work has taught
him that religious freedom is denied more frequently throughout the
world than one might expect--even in democratic countries such as
India--and that religious leaders themselves are often the instigators
of that repression.
Despite U.S. attempts to elevate the issue,
religious freedom remains a relatively low priority in the human rights
movement, Kazemzadeh says.
"Everyone wants to monopolize the
truth," he said, "but the Bahai position is that where you have human
beings with some notion of right and wrong, you have evidence of divine
©Copyright 2001, Los Angles Times