Praying for religious freedom

Charges against Bahá'ís in Iran root local followers even more deeply in their faith

Staff WriterFebruary 26, 2009 

Two Friday nights ago, Akbar Rahmani checked his e-mail and found a letter from Bahá'í headquarters telling him that the Iranian government planned to put on trial seven of his fellow believers within a matter of days.

He ran downstairs with a printed copy of the e-mail message and showed it to his wife, Elaheh.

The couple, immigrants from Iran living in Cary, wasted no time.

Within minutes, they had sent e-mail to every Bahá'í (pronounced ba-HIGH) in the Cary area and invited them to devotional prayers in their living room the next day.

Praying for the seven Bahá'í leaders, imprisoned since May in Tehran, has become a nightly ritual since the Iranian government announced their imminent trial. The seven Iranians have been charged with spying for Israel and using propaganda against the Islamic Republic, charges that few consider credible.

This community, like those worldwide, is accustomed to persecution. The independent, monotheistic faith founded in Iran (then Persia) in 1844 has long faced resistance, but even more so since the Iranian Revolution 30 years ago.

The faith was born as an offshoot of Islam, and many in the Muslim world consider it heretical. Iranians in particular have shown little tolerance. The homes of Bahá'ís have been burned and their businesses shuttered. University education is forbidden, as are government jobs.

The faith's 500 adherents in the Triangle consist of immigrants from Iran, as well as recent converts who have found the religion, with its emphasis on racial unity, gender equality and dialogue among different faiths, appealing.

At a prayer gathering last week, a group of black, white and Hispanic people gathered to pray in four languages -- Persian, Arabic, English and Spanish. There are no clergy in the Bahá'í faith, so the participants took turns reciting a favorite reading, whether a chant from the Bahá'í sacred writings or a biblical Psalm.

Photos of the seven middle-age Bahá'í prisoners -- five men and two women -- stood framed on the mantelpiece in one Cary home last week where devotional prayers were held.

"I'm just terrified that a state in the year 2009 has government policies to eradicate a minority religious community," Kathy Lee of Durham said. "It's just frightening to know this is still occurring."

To many in the Bahá'í community, the issue is not just political, or even religious. It's personal. Azadeh Rohanian Perry's brother-in-law is among the imprisoned. The Chapel Hill resident escaped Iran in 1987, but her sister Shaheen is still there. These days, Perry awaits a daily telephone call with mounting anxiety.

Not only is her brother-in-law's fate at stake, but it's hard to figure out what's going on. Perry doesn't want to endanger her sister's family by asking her to divulge too much information. She assumes the phones are bugged.

"When I hear their voices, it gives me a joy," said Perry, 41. "I know they're alive."

Like many of the estimated 300,000 Bahá'í living in Iran, Perry's two nieces, ages 21 and 24, are required to attend three years of Islamic classes -- part of the government's effort to convert them.

But the Bahá'í are resilient and strong in their faith. Perry said her sister's family is determined to ride out the current wave of persecution.

"If they leave, what about the others?" Perry said. "It won't solve anything."

Defying persecution

Members of this faith understand that sacrifice is part of faith. Nor is it unique to theirs. Many faiths are formed in the crucible of persecution. If Jews hadn't been exiled to Babylon, and if Christians hadn't been martyred during the waning days of the Roman Empire, it's doubtful they would have persevered.

"When Jesus came, this happened, and when Muhammad came, this happened too," said Elaheh Hosseini, 39, of Cary. "To me, it's part of the growth of all religions."

Flee to be free

Hosseini and her husband, Akbar Rahmani, left Iran six years ago so that their two daughters could attend college. But they have not forgotten the family they left behind; they still are deeply devoted to their faith.

For Hosseini, as for many Bahá'í, the upcoming trial, however painful, however unjust, may have one positive result: More people will hear and learn about their faith.

Bahá'í adherents believe in progressive revelation -- that God has sent divine messengers throughout human history to reveal divine will. That divine will, many Bahá'í believe, includes human beings' right to have religious freedom.

"The day will come when everyone will be free to worship according to their conscience," Lee said. "But we have to work for that."

yonat.shimron@newsobserver.com, or 919-829-4891

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