Thursday, 27 August 2009

Examiner: Baha'is in Iran: steadfast in spite of persecution

The small community room at the Arcade Library in Carmichael, California was filled with people, including some standing against the wall in the back of the room and others sitting cross-legged on the lineoleum-tiled floor.

It wasn't a typically sweltering-hot evening in July, in fact, there was a gentle, southwesterly breeze wafting through the open door. But the people squeezed into the room weren't gathered to discuss the pleasant weather. They were there to honor the hundreds of Baha'is who have been imprisoned, tortured, and in more than a few instances, executed for their beliefs.

The program began in an appropriately somber tone with prayers, two in English and one chanted in Farsi. The crowd, while largely Baha'is, were a mix of Iranians and Americans, Baha'is and those who were either friends of Baha'is or interested in the current political turmoil in Iran.

The first speaker was Marjan Aziza-Elahi, a resident of the Granite Bay Baha'i community who was joined at the speaker's podium by her six year old daughter, Raha. During the widespread increase of government-sanctioned persecution of Baha'is following the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Ms. Aziza-Elahi lost three of her uncles to execution. She did not, however, dwell on the horrific memories of that tragedy, but instead, remained focused on how Baha'is survived during the fiercely hostile early years of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Baha'is, along with concerned non-Baha'i family members and friends, helped each other with food, clothing, shelter and other necessities for survival, she explained.

They had to be careful, however, because gathering in a group would lead to arrest. The Islamic -ran government had outlawed the worship and teaching activities of the Baha'i Faith, and a group of Baha'is coming together for any reason was considered to be in defiance of the law.

She described how an 85 year old grandmother was arrested by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards because she refused to recant the Baha'i Faith. The elderly woman remained steadfast in her resolution that she would rather remain incarcerated than disavow her faith. Eventually, she was released.
These circumstances still exist for Baha'is in Iran today.

Next, a slide show presentation offered the Baha'is the opportunity to remember and honor those who had "disappeared", died during imprisonment or had been executed. Among those who were kidnapped and never seen again are the members of the National Spiritual Assembly of Iran. They were rounded up on August 21, 1980 and. it is assumed they are dead. Other slides revealed Baha'is in professional photographs, such as a Baha'i officer in the Iranian army before the Islamic Revolution, or snapshots of Baha'is taken by friends or family members. It was difficult to comprehend why the Iranian government would consider the smiling people in those photographs such a threat that they had to be beaten, tortured, and inevitably, hung or shot by a firing squad.

Farhad Sabetan, the final speaker for the evening and a former United Nations representative for the Baha'i International Community (Baha'is have a seat in the UN as a non-governmental organization), reminded the audience that although followers of the Ba'b and Baha'u'llah have suffered incalculable tragedies over the past 150 years, the years between 1979 and 1991 were the worst in terms harrassment, false imprisonment, discrimination and other human rights violations.

Referring to the current unrest in Iran surrounding the re-election Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president, Sabetan reiterated that no Baha'i is responsible for the protests, nor do they participate in any of the demonstrations. This position of neutrality has sometimes drawn sharp criticism from fellow Iranian citizen who are unhappy with the overwhelming political/economic status of their country and wish to have Baha'i participation. Baha'is are not only forbidden to participate in partisan politics, demonstrations, strikes or any activity against their government of residence, but they must also abide by the laws of their country. There is, however, one exception to that edict--they are must never recant their faith, even if faced with a myraid of injustices, including death.

"The Iranian people are now experiencing what the Baha'is have experienced for the past 30 years," Mr. Sabetan told the audience. Although Iranian Baha'is feel the same anguish and sorrow as their countrymen concerning the turmoil in their homeland, they have been instructed to move on with their daily duties instead of participating in the political upheaval. As a result, they perform whatever tasks they can to financially and spiritually support their families and neighbors, whether they are Baha'i or not.

Providing for their families and communities is not, however, a simple matter. As Mr. Sabetan explained, Baha'is are forbidden to have jobs in the government or private sector. They cannot own any property, whether it be a home or some land. Their children are often harrassed at school, and when they grow up, they are barred from attendance in the universities. As a result, Iranian Baha'is have become quite industrious by taking up a trade or opening a service-related business such house painting, auto repair, or janitorial work.

In some cases, university trained professionals such as doctors, teachers, attorneys and engineers have happily sold produce in the street markets for a living.
The purpose of the memorial service that day, Mr. Sabetan reminded those gathered, that was to not only honor those martryred, but to raise awareness of the false imprisonment and criminal charges that have filed against the seven members of ad-hoc committee of Baha'is that came together (with the full knowledge of the Iranian government) for the purpose of helping Baha'is remain steadfast in the matters of daily life during this fearful time. Unfortunately, the seven Baha'is were arrested in March and May of 2008, and they have been held in Tehran's Evin prison, the same facility where numerous protestors are now held. The Baha'i 7, or Yaran (Friends) who are awaiting trial are Behrouz Tavakkoli, Saeid Rezaie, Fariba Kamalabadi, Vahid Tizfahm, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, and Mahvash Sabet. Their court date has been postponed until October 18, 2009.

The evening ended a brief question and answer session with Mr. Sabetan, prayers and refreshments provided by the Carmichael community of Baha'is

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