Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Persecution of Baha'is on Rise: Iranian immigrant fears for those she left behind

By Elaine Jarvik, Deseret News

News Report on Mona Heern

View original publication on Deseret News here

The subject today is homophones: kernel and colonel, boarders and borders, hostel and hostile.

English, with its unreliable vowels and its quirky exceptions to the rules, is Mona Kashani Heern's language now — the one whose sly nuances she enthusiastically explains to her students at Joel P. Jensen Middle School in West Jordan on this January morning.

Heern can't imagine a place she'd rather be than this windowless room full of seventh-graders, even when the subject is just a list of spelling words.

"I was the lucky one who got to come to this country, who got to become a teacher," she explains later. "But in Iran, there are thousands and thousands of Baha'i students who are not allowed to go to school." The religious persecutions of her own life in Iran are the backdrop of a life dedicated now to education.

"I always loved school, and I was always winning scholarships," Heern remembers about her first years in a school near Tehran. "But then the Iranian government said 'If you're Baha'i you can't attend public schools.' My principal, who was Muslim, had tears in her eyes when she told me. She said, 'Who are the Baha'i in this class? Take your backpacks. You can't come to this school anymore.' "

This was 1984, the year also that her father, who owned an auto-parts store and was a member of the local lay Baha'i Assembly, was thrown into prison for his beliefs. Heern was 8 years old.

Intermittent persecution of Iranian Baha'is, including pogroms that killed an estimated 20,000 in the 19th century, continue to the current day, increasing after the Islamic revolution of 1979, according to the Baha'i International Community in its booklet "Closed Doors."

The Baha'i religion was born in 1844, when a young Persian man — later known as "The Bab" — declared that he was a prophet of God, and his mission was to prepare the world for the appearance of the "Lord of the Age," Baha'u'llah.

Baha'u'llah is the most recent manifestation of God, just as Moses, Jesus, Buddha and the Muslim prophet Mohammed are manifestations, according to Baha'i belief. God, Baha'is believe, is an "unknowable essence," and manifestations of God speak in ways that humanity is ready for at the time.

Such beliefs don't sit well with Muslim fundamentalists in Iran, where the 300,000 Baha'is now living there make up the country's largest minority religion. According to the Baha'i International Community, Iranian courts have denied Baha'is civil rights, the assets of businesses run by Baha'ishave been confiscated, Baha'i holy sites have been razed, and Baha'i teachers have not been allowed to teach.

Heern remembers visiting her father in prison in 1984. Once a month, she and her mother and little sister were allowed a 10-minute conversation, face-to-face but separated by glass. First though, there was always an interminable delay in the prison yard. Heern remembers the snowy wait on their visit in January 1985. After hours of standing in the cold, the family was finally ushered inside, where a guard announced "Oh, didn't they tell you? We killed him a month ago."

So, Heern is especially upset by recent reports that Dhabihu'llah Mahrami died in his prison cell last month. The 59-year-old former civil servant and Baha'i follower had been in prison since 1996, when he was first sentenced to die on charges of apostasy. Later, after protests from several Western governments, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

According to a Baha'i Community statement, Mahrami had received death threats in prison, had been forced to perform arduous physical labor, and "had no known health concerns" at the time of his death. "Mr. Mahrami's death comes amid ominous signs that a new wave of persecution of Baha'is has begun," according to the statement. "This year nearly 60 Baha'is have been arrested, detained or imprisoned, a figure up sharply from recent years."

All this weighs on Heern's mind as she goes about her pleasant life in Utah, where she is one of about 550 Baha'is, including about 150 refugees.

In Iran, Baha'i students still aren't allowed to attend Iranian universities, public or private, although the excuses have become increasingly more subtle. In addition, a private college, the Baha'i Institute of Higher Education — which offered classes in private homes or by correspondence (so that teachers' names would remain a secret) — was raided by the government in 1998 and in 2002.

After Heern's father was killed and his shop was taken over by the government, Heern's mother pawned her wedding ring and jewelry and bought their escape, on camelback, across Iran into Pakistan. The three-day journey took a week; the smugglers food supply ran out, and when Heern, her mother and sister finally arrived in their new country, they were thrown into jail for being illegal immigrants. Eventually, with the help of the Baha'i community in Pakistan and the United Nations, they were given refugee status.

As a refugee, though, she wasn't allowed to attend school in Pakistan, Heern says. It wasn't until the family was relocated to Germany, when she was 12, that she finally found herself in a classroom again.
"I started junior high immediately and could not speak a word of German," she remembers. She was also enrolled in English and French classes, which meant learning three new languages at the same time. There were no special ESL classes for immigrant children.

But Heern worked hard, eventually moved to the United States, and graduated from the University of California at Northridge. She received her masters at the University of Phoenix in Salt Lake City.

She loves her religion, she says, for its beliefs in equality of rights and opportunities for men and women, the elimination of extremes of poverty and wealth and for the importance it places on universal education. "I love the fact that Baha'is do not just talk about the oneness of the world of humanity, but that we have established racially diverse communities in every corner of the globe." There are now an estimated 5 million Baha'is worldwide. She worries about the Baha'is she left behind in Iran.

In 2003, Heern and her husband moved to Utah — where on a January morning she stands in front of her seventh-graders, enthusiastically teaching a spelling list. Borders. Hostile. Words that Heern understands too well.

Recurring Trials for an Iranian Family – A Microcosm of the Persecution of the Baha’is in Iran

By Mona Heern

Listen here on wkms.org

Late last month, my uncle and five other Baha’is were taken from the town of Gorgan in Iran to Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, where their fate remains a mystery.  This latest round of persecution began the month before.  I became aware of it on October 17, when I received a late night phone call informing me that my uncle, Kamal Kashani, was arrested along with a number of other Baha’is in Gorgan for being members of the Baha’i Faith, the largest non-Muslim religious minority in Iran.

The reports that followed in the next couple of days out of Iran were heart wrenching. They portrayed a picture of innocent Baha’is as young as 18 years of age being kidnapped, taken to unknown locations, and tortured to recant their Faith; of homes being plundered by the authorities; and government officials being unjustly harsh to the families of the captives.  After 35 days of brutal treatment, my uncle and the five other Baha’is were transferred to Evin where their fate could be even worse. 

The last time that I saw my uncle was 28 years ago. We were standing in a court yard surrounded by armed guards in an Iranian prison. At that time, he was 25 years old, sentenced to a six year prison term for being a member of the Baha'i Faith. I was only 10 years old, crying my heart out while giving him one last hug. Scenes like this had become my reality since 1983, when both my father and uncle were incarcerated due to their belief in the teachings of the Baha’i Faith, which promotes the oneness of the human race, unity among all religions, the equality of women and men, and the importance of education for all.

A few months before this visit I was expelled from elementary school along with other Baha’i children because the Iranian government had decided that Baha’i children should not have the right to education. I have never forgotten the day when the principal of my elementary school walked into my 5th grade classroom and said: “Who are the Baha’is in this room?” Two of us raised our hands. With tears in her eyes she informed us that, although we were two of the best students in her school, she had no choice but to follow the order of the government and expel us from school.

Sometime after this incident, we went to Evin prison for our monthly 10 minute visit with my father. God knows how much I cherished those short visits despite the fact that we were separated by a glass window and our conversations were closely monitored by the authorities.  After hours of the usual waiting outside the prison yard, we were abruptly informed in the harshest way possible that my father, along with some other Baha’is, had already been executed after 19 months of imprisonment.  All we were given was a grave number, the address of where he was buried, and a small box containing a few of his personal items, which included two torn shirts, which still showed evidence of torture, his shoes and a picture of my sister and me.  As I sat in the back of our small car driving towards the cemetery with my mother trying to navigate the busy Tehran traffic, I could not let go of my father’s shoes and buried my tears in them all the way to his final resting place.

A few months after my father’s execution, my mother, sister and I left Iran in a difficult journey on camel-back to Pakistan, where we lived under the protection of the United Nations as refugees.  Next, we moved to Germany and later to the United States.  Since then, I have been able to pursue my education, become a teacher, and gather freely with fellow Baha’is for prayers and acts of service. However, my uncle, his children, and hundreds of thousands of Baha’is in Iran are still deprived of these basic human rights.  As I sit in my comfortable home in Murray, Kentucky, I cannot believe that my uncle, now 53 years of age, is once again in prison, charged with the crime of being a Baha’i.

My friends here often ask me if they can help the Baha’is in Iran.  In fact, there is much that can be done.  Congress is currently reviewing House Resolution 134, which condemns the Iranian government for their state-sponsored persecution of Baha’is and their continued violation of the International Covenants on Human Rights. Please ask your representatives to support Resolution 134. In addition, please visit the site: www.educationunderfire.com to lend your support to thousand of Baha’i students in Iran, who are deprived of attending any university in their country.

The Baha'i Faith: A History of Persecution in Iran

By Zackery M. Heern

Originally written for NPR affiliate, WKMS

The Baha’i Faith is the second largest religious community in Iran after Shi‘i Islam. It is also the second most geographically widespread religion in the world.

Oppression of Baha’is in Iran is not new. Iranian officials have persecuted Baha’is since the inception of the Baha’i Faith in the mid-1800s. Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i Faith, promoted a message of international cooperation, gender and racial equality, universal education, and other teachings tailored to the modern world. Baha’is are also committed to nonviolence. Today the Baha’i Faith is organized by local, regional, and international councils, which are made up of democratically elected representatives. Unlike most major religions, then, the Baha’i Faith does not have clergy.

Countless Iranians quickly gravitated to the Baha’i Faith in the 1800s. The burgeoning Baha’i movement faced a swift backlash from religious and political officials. In the mid-1800s, angry mobs and government officials massacred over 20,000 Baha’is. Public executions and parades of dead Baha’is through the streets of Iran were not uncommon. An Austrian eyewitness in 1852 remembers seeing Baha’is with candles in their flesh “dragged in chains through the bazaar, preceded by a military band, in whom these wicks had burned so deep that now the fat flickered convulsively in the wound like a newly extinguished lamp.”[1]

In 1853 the Iranian government exiled Baha’u’llah to the Ottoman Empire – first to Iraq and later to Palestine. Baha’u’llah remained a prisoner in Palestine until the end of his life in 1892.

Therefore, the reason that the Baha’i Faith has its world center in Israel is that Baha’u’llah was exiled there by the Iranian government. Baha’is have not entangled themselves in the Palestine-Israel conflict. In fact, Baha’is do not directly involve themselves in politics in Israel, Iran, or elsewhere.

Throughout the 20th century, oppression of Baha’is in Iran continued. Baha’i marriages were not recognized, Baha’is were disallowed from public employment, and Baha’i literature was banned. In 1955, the Iranian government issued an order for the suppression of Baha’is. During this time, Baha’is were murdered and witnessed the demolition of their national Baha’i center in Tehran.

Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in the wake of the 1979 revolution, the new government has systematically attempted to destroy the Baha’i community. The Hojjatieh Society, which factored prominently into the Islamicization of the Iranian revolution, was initially founded as an anti-Baha’i organization. The current president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is an ardent supporter of the Hojjatieh. The Iranian constitution, which was written by the revolutionaries, does not recognize the rights of Baha’is. Because Iran’s courts treat Baha’is as “unprotected infidels,” Iranians cannot be charged with injuring or murdering Baha’is.

Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s current head of state, signed a secret government document that was leaked in the 1990s, which outlines the government’s plans to block the development of the Baha’i community. He also declared that Baha’is are impure (najes) – a term reserved for animals and infidels.

Throughout the 1980s, the Iranian government systematically executed leaders of the Baha’i community. Since the 1990s, it has shifted to a policy of social and economic persecution. For example, Baha’is are barred from attending colleges and universities, regular news reports condemn Baha’is, and teachers often harass Baha’i school children. Since 2007, Baha’is have witnessed a surge of violence, which includes the destruction of Baha’i cemeteries and new waves of imprisonment, as indicated by the case of Kamal Kashani and many others.

[1] Quoted in, “The Baha’i Question: Cultural Cleansing in Iran,” New York: Baha’i International Community, 2008, p. 41. For full document, see http://news.bahai.org/human-rights/iran/the-bahai-question.html