THE BLOG

Five Years Too Many -- The Renewed Assault on Baha'i Leaders in Iran

"If you want to pick the right spouse, this is really good," said Farzam Kamalabadi, as he pointed to a list of character and spiritual traits I had shown him in my notebook. He and I would discuss a wide range of topics, mostly related in some way to our common faith as Baha'is. He and his brother, Iraj, were novelties in my experience. So was Mona Mahmoudi, whom I had met a few years earlier, when I was a freshman in college and she was a graduate student in mathematics. She and her husband hosted weekly Baha'i discussion meetings -- meetings that were considerably enhanced by the warmth and hospitality that I later came to realize was typical of Persian culture. Mona had an infectious optimism about the future that greatly impressed me.

I had grown up in a Baha'i family in Hartford, Conn., but had only met one or two Iranian Baha'is before heading off to college in 1973. Now, it was early 1980, and I was a graduate student in the Boston area where there were a number of Iranian Baha'i students in limbo wondering if it would be safe to return to Iran in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Their concern was not unfounded.

Since the inception of the Baha'i Faith in Iran in the middle of the 19th century, Baha'is had been subjected to continuous discrimination, and, at times, brutal persecution. In the first 20 years of the faith, approximately 20,000 believers were either executed by the government or killed by mobs -- usually stirred to action in either case by the unrelenting enmity of a majority of the clergy. For the latter, the idea that any religion could emerge after Islam was blasphemous and deserving of the severest repression. The fact that the new faith had drawn to its allegiance a not inconsiderable number of prominent clergymen was, rather than a reason for sober reflection, a cause for the highest alarm lest this faith spread among the population.

Though I was familiar with this history, in early 1980 I considered it to be largely a thing of the past. Certainly, there had been an eruption of violence in 1955 when a virulently anti-Baha'i clergyman used a weekly radio broadcast to stir up hatred against the Baha'i community. But, this, in my mind, was the exception.

Mona finished her master's degree and moved from the Boston area in 1976 to California. Her father -- a respected television personality -- was executed by the government of Iran in 1980. Her mother -- the first female head of the Iranian government's department of meteorology -- was executed in 1981. Each had served on the elected national governing council of the Baha'is of Iran. On May 25, 1982, Mona testified before a congressional committee about these executions, which were among the approximately 95 carried out by the state up to that time against Baha'is.

Farzam and Iraj's father was imprisoned for five months in 1984. He had been a well-known physician in parts of the province of Mazanderan where he served largely rural communities. According to Iraj, he was severely tortured by various means, including electric shocks. Iraj strongly suspects that his premature death, after several strokes, was the result of the abuse in prison.

Iraj, Farzam and I overlapped in the Boston area until I left in 1985. Farzam eventually settled in China. Iraj obtained his degree in civil engineering and later settled in California. It is today striking to me that they never mentioned the ordeals of their father. Their enthusiasm for life was, in retrospect, remarkable.

But, the story does not end there. Farzam and Iraj had two younger siblings, including a sister, Fariba, who remained in Iran after the Revolution. On May 14, 2008, Mrs. Fariba Kamalabadi, then 45 years old and herself the mother of three, was arrested, together with six other Baha'is. These seven, known as the "Yaran-i-Iran," (literally "friends of Iran"), served as the ad hoc leadership group of the Baha'is in Iran. Formal Baha'i elected governing councils were disbanded in 1983 in compliance with a governmental decree, so an ad hoc group ministered to the basic needs of the Baha'i community such as marriages, divorces, and funerals.

Fariba and the others were tried together in a process that was replete with irregularities, including no timely access to their attorneys and to the "evidence" against them. Charged with espionage, propaganda activities against the Islamic order, the establishment of an illegal administration, cooperation with Israel, sending secret documents outside the country, acting against the security of the country, and corruption on earth, they categorically denied all the charges. Each of these seven leaders was sentenced to 20 years in prison, the longest sentence of any current prisoner of conscience in Iran. One of their lawyers, Nobel Laureate Ms. Shirin Ebadi, who herself is in exile to escape persecution, later stated, during a BBC Persian Service interview on Aug. 8, 2010, that, over a year after the detention of the seven, when she finally was provided the opportunity to examine the prosecutor's case file, she "did not find anything proving the accusations, nor any document that could prove the claims of the prosecutor." These seven have been unjustly detained since 2008 solely for their religious beliefs.

The Baha'i Faith accepts the divine origin of all of the great religions of the world, including Islam, together with Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Zoroastrianism, urges its followers to seek truth independently, has no clergy, embraces the equality of the sexes, places great emphasis on education, accepts both science and religion as sources of truth and asserts that religion, if interpreted correctly, is consistent with science. Most importantly, it proclaims the oneness of the human race as its core principle around which all other Baha'i social teachings revolve.

That, in the last quarter of the 20th century, these beliefs could bring the power of the state down on an entire community and continue to do so to the present day is one of the tragedies of our time. May 14 marks five years in prison for the seven -- Ms. Fariba Kamalabadi, Mr. Jamaloddin Khanjani, Mr. Afif Naemi, Mr. Saied Rezaie, Ms. Mahvash Sabet, Mr. Behrooz Tavakkoli, and Mr. Vahid Tizfahm -- five years too many. The international community must not forget them and the many other prisoners of conscience in Iran.

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