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Page 4 --- Social Commentary

 Religious  Persecution in Iran is Felt Here and Around the World

                                                                     By James West

Iran is prominently featured in our news these days.  Much of that news is not good.  For instance, the interviews following the imprisonment and release of American journalist Roxanna Saberi  from an Iranian prison give a disturbing glimpse of the human rights abuse that has characterized the ruling regime in Iran. Although she spent much of her time in solitary confinement, held incommunicado and threatened repeatedly, Ms. Saberi mentioned that among the redeeming and heartening experiences in Teheran’s dreadful Evin prison, was the time she spent with fellow female prisoners, who she said showed remarkable faith and courage. Among these women were members of the Baha’i Faith, whose adherents are routinely persecuted and arrested by the Iranian regime solely on religious grounds.

 The Lehigh Valley Baha’i community recently marked the one year anniversary of the imprisonment of seven leaders of the Faith in Iran. Approximately thirty others are in prison throughout the country.  Baseless charges, including conspiring with Zionists and “spreading corruption on earth” carry the potential penalty of death, which hangs over the heads of these absolutely innocent people and their terrorized families. Their only crime is their Faith and their refusal to recant. Their one hope of justice in the country, lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Shirin Ebadi, is even prevented from meeting with the prisoners. What is it about these Baha’is that so frightens or enrages these rulers?

More than thirty five years ago as a young college student, I came across the Baha’i House of Worship while driving down Lake Shore Drive in Wilmette, Illinois. The structure is an architectural gem, set handsomely on the shore of Lake Michigan.  Intrigued by the building, I entered, and learned for the first time of the Baha’i Faith, a religion whose principal message is the elimination of prejudice and the essential oneness of the human race.  The religion also teaches the equality of men and women, the harmony of science and religion, the interconnectedness of the world’s religions, the moral basis of economic relationships, the need for universal education and the independent investigation of truth. There is no clergy.

I also learned that the Baha’i religion had its roots in Iran where it was founded in 1844. Through its dramatic history, it has spread throughout the world and today its millions of followers, come from every walk of life, in every part of the globe.  At the time I knew little of Iran, as I suspect was the case for most Americans. Later I was to learn of the ancient history of Iran, the beauty of the art and architecture and kindness and generosity of most of the people. But what surprised me most about Iran was that this peace loving religion, the Baha’i Faith, with its progressive and life affirming teachings was the target of brutal persecution in the land of its birth.  I visited Iran in 1975, during the time of the Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, and had to travel with great secrecy to visit places of Baha’i history. Most all of these places have now been destroyed. The harsh fate of the Baha’is was worsened tenfold after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, when the Shah was overthrown and religious extremist seized control.

To Americans, freedom of religion is fundamental to our collective consciousness. It literally comes with the territory. This is especially true here in Pennsylvania, where the cause of religious freedom is at the core of our history. The coexistence of Moravians, Lutherans, Baptists, Quakers, Methodists, Catholics, Jews and increasingly today Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists, is a source of pride to our American identity. Roxanna Saberi mentioned in her post-prison interviews that during the darkest moments of captivity she would seek strength by focusing on the words of the Star Spangled Banner and be moved to tears when she came to the last lines, “the land of the free and the home of the brave”.  We that have these and our other freedoms - speech, press, assembly, enterprise, are indeed among the fortunate of this planet. The freedom of faith is a treasured human right, a gift bequeathed by our forefathers, but certainly a gift that comes with the obligation to protect these freedoms for ourselves and promote them for others.  This may be America’s greatest legacy and destiny.

 My long connection with the Baha’i community has brought me into close contact with the suffering of the Baha’is of Iran. A few years ago, while travelling in India, I met with the mother of a sixteen year old girl who was executed, hung along with twelve other young women, all for no reason other than their faith. In the Lehigh Valley and around the country I have met refugees of the Iranian regime who have been fired from jobs, expelled from schools, homes invaded in the night , family members imprisoned, pensions seized, children harassed,  cemeteries desecrated.  All of this being caused by blind religious hatred and intolerance.  In 1979 when the Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in Iran, we Baha’is of the Lehigh Valley, along with many thousands around the world, inundated this tormentor of the Baha’is with telegrams letting him know that his sanctioned executions of two hundred Baha’is was not going unnoticed. Today our State Representatives, and Senators and every President since Ronald Reagan, as well leaders around the world, have risen to pass resolutions and to speak out against the violent intolerance towards the Baha’is. Yet still it persists.

Iran is a country with the talent and potential to work toward the peace and prosperity of the world. Yet its character and future are darkened by the intolerance and persecution of the innocent.  While we may naturally relate to the plight of a fellow American citizen and journalist like Roxanna Saberi being held captive unjustly in a foreign land, it is also important that we not forget those citizens of other lands and other faiths who suffer in prison solely for what they believe.

The power of the free press and strong voices promoting human rights compelled the happy ending to Ms. Saberi’s ordeal. The Baha’i community prays for a similar happy ending for its imprisoned co-religionists and that this American democracy, which has so often risen to the defense of the oppressed, will again champion the cause of religious freedom and justice.  Readers are encouraged to write our leaders in Congress to cosponsor and vote for two resolutions, H Res 175 and S Res 71, demanding an end to religious persecution in Iran, especially for the seven Baha’is who are threatened with death.                  (James West, Ph.D., Schnecksville, PA is a member of the Baha’i community of the Lehigh Valley) (The Morning Call, May 20, 2010).

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