Religion & Spirituality

YS Bahá’ís back those in Iran

Growing up in Iran in the 1950s and ’60s, local resident Farzaneh (Behjati) Mader experienced some discrimination based on her adherence to the Bahá’í faith. Many Iranian Muslims thought of themselves as superior and did not like to associate with her family members, who as Bahá’ís, were considered “unclean.” But the politics at the time took a drastic change for the worse when in 1979 the Shah was overthrown to make way for an Islamic state led by an ayatollah, or most holy leader. The Iranian Revolution had changed the country beyond recognition, especially for the Behjatis.

That year Mader’s parents, her sister and her niece, all Bahá’ís, fled their homeland for fear of the kind of religious persecution that has claimed the lives of 217 innocent Bahá’ís over the past 30 years. The family came to the United States seeking the freedom to practice their faith, but they left behind a great many of their Bahá’í countrymen who suffer still today under an intolerant regime that has failed to recognize the human rights long considered fundamental by the international community. Mader has watched the situation in her native country unfold from afar, and has done what she can with the support of the local Bahá’í community to advocate for change in Iran.

Then in 2008, a high-profile group of seven Bahá’ís working to serve their Iranian constituents with the most basic spiritual needs, were arrested for “actions against national security,” on accusations that they were spying for Israel and America, according to an article published last September in NOW Lebanon, an independent Lebanese news journal. After being held for several months, the seven, known as the Yaran, or Friends, were committed to 20 years in prison, a sentence that was reduced in November to 10 years, according to local Bahá’í Roi Qualls. Of all the human rights indecencies that the government of Iran has condoned in the past, this one seemed particularly egregious because of the Yaran members were acting not for themselves but for the members of their faith when they were arrested, local Bahá’í Kim Kremer said.

In December after the sentence was reduced, the U.S. Senate proposed a resolution “condemning the government of Iran for its state-sponsored persecution of religious minorities in Iran” and urging the U.S. president to consider further sanctions against criminal officials. The United Nations General Assembly also expressed “deep concerns at serious and recurring human rights violations,” including “excessive use of force, arbitrary detention, unfair trials and allegations of torture,” as well as “pervasive gender inequality and violence against women.” Government leaders of Canada, Germany and India, as well as Christian Solidarity Worldwide, also criticized Iran for its breech of international legal obligations, as a member of the U.N., to uphold the human rights covenants of the organization.

And doing its part to raise awareness of the injustice overseas, the local Bahá’í community held a devotional ceremony recently honoring the seven imprisoned leaders of their faith. The local community of about 50 Bahá’ís recited prayers in the names of the Yaran members, all parents who range in age from 37 to 77, and employed in professions varying from developmental psychologist and school principal to social worker and brick factory owner. The local community also reviewed Iran’s human rights record, with particular regard to the Bahá’ís, which is as deplorable as the day Mader and her family left their country more than three decades ago.

“Things have changed from the time I was in Iran -— things have changed for the worse,” Mader said last week. “Then it was more like personal discrimination, not too terrible, but we were given a hard time. Now they kill [Bahá’ís] — their possessions are taken, their jobs are taken away, and a lot are in prison.”

Mader still has family in Iran and would love to return for a visit to Tehran, where she grew up. But she finds the risk of whatever she might face as a Bahá’í in Iran’s “lawless land” too great to bear. Instead she and the Bahá’í community in Yellow Springs, which includes her sister Farideh, will encourage residents to write to their representatives in Congress to support the resolution to free the imprisoned members of the Yaran. They hope that the more pressure citizens and governments around the world can place on Iran, the more likely change is to happen, Qualls said.

The arrest of the Yaran is “part of a 30-year systematic campaign of harassment and persecution,” against the Bahá’ís in Iran, NOW Lebanon reported. While the Islamic Republic’s constitution recognizes Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians as minorities with rights, the Bahá’ís aren’t acknowledged as Iranian citizens, according to the article. The prophet of the Bahá’í Faith was a Muslim, which makes the faith a heretical one in the eyes of Iran’s Muslim leaders. According to Kremer, Iranian Bahá’ís have lost their property, their jobs, the legitimacy of their marriages and therefore their children, and they are constantly at risk of being arrested for their beliefs.

In the century before the Iranian revolution, 20,000 Bahá’ís were executed, and over the past 30 years Bahá’í leaders have been either assassinated in public or executed in prisons, according to Mehdi Khalaji, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who was quoted in the NOW Lebanon article. Last June the Iranian government leveled 50 homes in a Bahá’í community in the northern village of Ivel, and 50 individuals are currently in prison on unsubstantiated charges, the article stated.

Many non-Muslims in the country have faced discrimination, but none to the extent that the Bahá’ís have suffered, according to Kremer. Bahá’ís are the largest religious minority in Iran, with 350,000 adherents, and yet they are perceived as such a threat that they are persecuted the most brutally, said Qualls, who in 2009 co-led with local resident Eli Mulhall, a group of Bahá’í youth on a cross country bicycle trip to spread awareness of the issue in Iran.

Qualls feels that without international pressure, the Bahá’ís in Iran would have been eliminated long ago. He also recognizes that Bahá’ís aren’t the only group in the world that is oppressed. But any light that can be shined on injustice for one group can raise the bar for other groups as well.

“We’re not calling on just Bahá’ís, but for anyone imprisoned unjustly,” he said.

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