Saturday, May 06, 2006

Concern Rises Over Baha'is in Iran

Kristin E. Holmes, Philadelphia Inquirer:
The father of immigration attorney Nahid Wilf died in an Iranian prison in 1983. Wilf, of Chadds Ford, doesn't know the medical cause, nor the circumstances, surrounding his death. There is one thing Wilf is sure of, however. Her father was imprisoned because he was a Baha'i. He believed in a faith that the government in Iran considers heresy.

Wilf's father is one of about 200 people who Baha'i officials believe have died as a result of persecution since the Iranian revolution of 1979.

Over the last year, concern has increased after a series of troubling incidents, prompting members of the U.S. Baha'i community to speak out in an effort to encourage the international community to do the same. READ MORE

"All we are asking is that the Baha'is in Iran be allowed to practice their faith and have the same human rights as any other Iranian citizen," said Bani Dugal, the principal representative for the Baha'i International Community at the United Nations.

In December, Dhabihu'llah Mahramic, a Baha'i, died in an Iranian prison where he had been held for 10 years. He had refused to denounce his Baha'i faith in favor of Islam, Dugal said. An initial sentence of death was reduced to life in prison after international pressure.

The State Department condemned "the persecution and imprisonment" of Mahramic and other religious minorities in Iran in a statement released after his death.

In March, a representative of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights released a statement about an October letter from the commander of Iran's armed forces to several of the country's government agencies that called for Baha'is in Iran to be identified and monitored.

"They think they can get away with the human-rights violations if the world is silent," Wilf said.

There are more that five million Baha'is internationally. India has the largest Baha'i community, with two million; Iran is second with 300,000. About 150,000 live in the United States, with 1,000 in the five-county Philadelphia area and South Jersey. Locally, Baha'is are divided among six spiritual communities called "assemblies." The National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is, the group's administrative body, is headquartered near Chicago. The international headquarters is in Israel.

Followers believe in the unification of humanity into a single community that breaks down barriers of "race, class, creed and nation." They believe in one God who has sent a series of messengers or prophets representing religions that are each a progressive revelation from God. They include Abraham, Moses, Zoroaster, Jesus and Muhammad. Bahaullah, the founder of the Baha'i tradition, is another in that line of prophets, followers believe.

The religion was founded in the mid-19th century in what is now Iran. Baha'is in Iran have been subjected to some degree of harassment and persecution since then because Baha'is believe that the faith's founder is a prophet and Muslims believe that Muhammad was the last prophet. Christianity and Judaism technically are recognized by the government. The Baha'is, the largest religious minority, are not.

"The Iranian human-rights record is atrocious, as is the human-rights record of any country including the U.S. - given Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib," said Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies at Columbia University. "Religious, ideological and political minorities are persecuted, and the condition of women is terrible. But this is not specific to Iran. It is endemic in other countries as well."

Since the revolution, Baha'is in Iran have lost jobs and property and have been jailed and killed, Baha'is say. Students have been forced into underground schools to continue their education after high school.

The brother of Montgomeryville engineer Ramin Eshraghi is one of them. His brother attended classes taught by Baha'i teachers in the homes of Iranian Baha'is until the government stopped them, Eshraghi said. Eshraghi's father lost his job, and his whereabouts were monitored by government officials. His family's house was stoned.

Eshraghi immigrated to the United States in the mid-1980s and received asylum as a Baha'i. Many in his family still live in Iran, including his brother.

"He works as an appliance repairman because he couldn't continue his education," Eshraghi said. "He is a dedicated Baha'i and wants to stay. He feels, if he leaves, it's like a defeat."

Eshraghi and Wilf were among a group of about 90 Baha'is who gathered last Saturday to observe the 12-day Baha'i festival of Ridvan commemorating Bahaullah's prophethood.

The afternoon included prayer chants, a flower ritual involving children, and readings from Baha'i sacred texts.

"We want the international community to know what is happening," Wilf said. Perhaps things will be different, she said, if the Iranian government "knows the world is watching."

Contact staff writer Kristin E. Holmes at 215-854-2791 or