Persecution Under the Radar
Picture the Islamic Republic of Iran. What comes to mind? For the average American it may be nuclear proliferation, the bombastic President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, maybe Persian rugs, but not much else. Certainly seven regular, middle-class people who have been imprisoned for quietly practicing the Baha'i religion haven't made it onto our radars.
The seven are leaders of a prohibited Iranian religious community that
does ordinary things like counseling couples who are considering marriage,
helping poor students access educational opportunities, leading prayer groups
and caring for the elderly. In May 2008, a Revolutionary Court punished their
efforts with 20-year sentences in the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran -- the
sort of pen none of us will ever see except in movies -- jailed on charges of
"insulting religious sanctities," "propaganda against the
system" and the capital offenses "espionage for Israel" and
"corruption on Earth."
People who practice the relatively unknown Baha'i faith by seeking
"to know and worship God," and "promote the oneness of
humankind" live all around us. About 169,000 of them -- only 22,000 of
Iranian descent -- live in 8,000 towns and cities across the U.S., representing
a fraction of the faith's 5 million worshippers in 189 countries.
In Iran, the Baha'is number approximately 300,000 -- about 4 percent of
the population. They are the largest non-Muslim religious minority, compared to
30,000 Jews and 30,000 Christians, though they aren't recognized as such.
According to Glen Fullmer, spokesperson for the U.S. Baha'i organization, even
though the religion was founded in Iran in 1844, "Baha'is have no formal
representation in parliament like other religious minorities -- they are not
recognized in any way."
Fullmer said Baha'is have been persecuted since the religion's inception
but most severely since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Since then, the Baha'is
have struggled to continue practicing their faith. The government's ban on the
religion was the only basis on which the seven leaders were held for a year
before they were sentenced, and to this day, no evidence has been produced to
prove their guilt.
"The Baha'is are not allowed to have clergy or priests -- they were
all rounded up and executed. Thousands are imprisoned, hundreds have been
killed, many just disappear," Fullmer said. "They are considered
lower than dogs in the street -- they are denied higher education and
professions, their marriages are not recognized, their holy places are
demolished and their cemeteries bulldozed. The Iranian government sponsors
their persecution so they have no rights, they're not seen as people before the
None of this should inspire pity for Iran's Baha'i faithful or for the
seven leaders sitting in jail without access to their families, lawyers,
adequate food or medical care. They, like so many others struggling for basic
human rights in Iran, aren't victims -- they're fighters whose stories should
serve as an inspiration to those who hold freedom of religion and expression
"These seven, like the rest of the Iranian people, are persistent
and fearless about fighting for their human rights -- they take tremendous
risks for themselves, their families and their fellow citizens to improve
living and working conditions in Iran," said Elise Auerbach, the Iran
specialist for Amnesty International USA. As part of the International Human
Rights Day on Dec. 10, Auerbach's organization and the U.S. Baha'i assemblies
are working together to tell the stories of these seven prisoners to inform
people about the struggles of the many Iranians who are persecuted for their
religious or political beliefs.
"We know we can make a difference for these seven Baha'is,"
Auerbach said. "The Iranian government pays attention to petitions,
letters and media attention. The prisoners' sentences were already reduced from
20 to 10 years last September because of the criticism the Iranian government
has gotten over this case." Pleas for the release of these Baha'i leaders
have been made in U.N. and in U.S. congressional resolutions.
Finding ways to help free the seven prisoners is just an Internet search
away. But even just knowing a little bit more about the struggles of some of
the real people of Iran gives the sacrifices of the imprisoned Baha'is even
2010, Washington Post Writers Group