Imagine a country where it is not only illegal for some human beings to be friends with each other because of their religions, but where even their cows were once banned from grazing together in the same field.
In recent months, in Rafsanjan, Iran, a wave of arson attacks was unleashed against Iranian Baha'is for making "friends" with Muslims. After more than a dozen Baha'i-owned shops were burned, a warning letter arrived at Baha'i homes and businesses demanding that the Baha'is "refrain from forming contacts or friendships with Muslims." This follows arson attacks last year against Baha'i homes in Ivel, Iran -- the same village where a decree was once passed forbidding Baha'i- and Muslim-owned cows from grazing together.
This week, four U.S.-based Iranian Baha'is will come to Washington, D.C. to advocate for the release of their innocent relatives, who have been jailed solely due to their religious beliefs. Three of the prisoners they represent are serving 10-year sentences for being part of a national administrative group known as "The Friends," or Yaran in Farsi, while another prisoner is a young woman serving a four-year sentence for engaging in a project to teach underprivileged youth how to read and write. In efforts to shine light onto a dark and deplorable human rights situation, these relatives will meet with the Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen; Senator Mark Kirk; Congressman Frank Wolf; as well as officials at the State Department, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and members of the press.
For a climate of oppression to thrive -- Nazi Germany comes immediately to mind -- public scrutiny must be diverted from the central authority and projected onto an "other," usually a minority population that serves as a scapegoat. In Iran, every opportunity has been taken to separate Baha'is, and even their cows, from the rest of the Iranian population by labeling them mohareb, or "enemies of God." But the Baha'is are not enemies of any kind, refraining from conflict and dissension as a matter of religious principle. With 300,000 members, they are Iran's largest non-Muslim religious minority. The injustices meted out to them are a reflection of the terrible oppression that has now engulfed that entire country.
Despite many efforts, Iran is not a nation where friendship has flourished over the past three decades. The frozen diplomatic relations between our two countries and the arbitrary imprisonment of journalists, hikers, scholars, human rights activists and minorities bear ample evidence of this. But this cannot and will not last forever. The surest way to ultimately overcome a force of hatred is with an even stronger force of friendship.
Let us therefore resolve to utilize our freedom to speak out for freedom in Iran. Let us also use our freedom to make new and deeper friendships here in compensation for those who are banned in Iran and other repressive countries. Whether you happen to be a Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Baha'i or atheist, take someone of a different belief out to lunch or visit his or her place of worship. Surely the news that many new friendships are being formed as a result of their sacrifices will be a comfort to the imprisoned "Friends," or Yaran, in Iran, who are currently serving a decade of harsh imprisonment because of their belief in strengthening bonds of affection and unity among all members of the human race.