Unofficial curbs in place since 9/11 have eased for worshipers fleeing persecution
The drive from his Tehran home to the airport and on to America was a journey that Khosrow, a member of the Bahai faith, was never willing to take.
When Iran’s Shiite Muslim clerics fired him from his job at a state oil company, declaring him fer’qeh zalleh, a follower of a “misguided sect,” Khosrow took odd jobs to make a living.
When his two daughters passed tough university entrance exams only to be banned when they revealed their religion on application forms, he sent them to study in Chicago with their uncle.
No matter the degree of religious persecution, Khosrow believed remaining in Iran was better than leaving his culture and tradition. But this winter, Khosrow, 63, did what was once unthinkable: He immigrated with his wife to the United States, settling in Naperville.
“For 25 years, I was patient and tried to endure, but that endurance ran out,” said Khosrow, who, like all the Iranian Bahais interviewed, fears his extended family in Iran could be punished if his last name were published.
“I hoped things would get better. But there is daily harassment. … I tried to sell my things to leave Iran, no one bought them because Iranians believe Bahais are unclean.”
Khosrow and other Iranian Bahais have found sanctuary in the United States in recent months. After unofficially halting immigration for most Iranians after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. is again allowing Bahais to enter as refugees.
Many stop in the Chicago area, if only for a visit, because of the Bahai House of Worship in Wilmette, the only Bahai temple in North America and a symbol of their newfound freedom.
“Homeland Security has come on board the idea that Bahais should be allowed in because they are in a different category than other Iranians,” said Greg Sullivan, a U.S. State Department official.
The change comes when conditions for Bahais have become more brutal in Iran as hard-line clerics reassert their strength within the government.
The United States severed ties with Iran in 1980, after Americans were taken hostage in the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Recently the U.S. government has been more reluctant than usual to grant visas to citizens from Iran and other countries in the Middle East and South Asia that oppose the Bush administration’s war on terrorism. Iranian scholars have been denied visas.
In Iran, where 350,000 Bahais constitute the country’s largest religious minority, members of the faith experience “arbitrary arrest, short-term detention and persistent patterns of harassment and discrimination,” according to a recent report released by the Geneva-based Bahai International Community.
The report states that “all attempts to obtain redress are … denied as [Iranian] officials continue to confiscate their homes, deny their rightfully earned pensions, benefits and inheritance, and block their access to employment or impede their private business activities.”
Many immigrant Bahais declined to be interviewed because they were afraid Iranian officials would punish their family who still remain in Iran.
Their fears are not unfounded. Iranian authorities imprison members of religious minorities and political activists who criticize the regime. The Islamic Guidance Ministry, a department within the Iranian government, tracks media reports about Iran across the world.
Many, like 34-year-old Arash, fear giving their last names even after years away from Iran. Arash left in 1985 and spent eight months as a refugee in Pakistan. He later moved to Canada and then to the United States.
“For as long as Bahais have been in Iran, there have been misconceptions about our faith,” Arash said.
He is the hospitality coordinator at the Bahai temple today. The temple is considered a place of meditation; Bahais often worship and hold other events in private homes or rented space. About 130,000 Bahais live in the U.S., with only a small percentage from Iran.
Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran’s Shiite clerics have advocated religious uniformity. International pressure on Iran to show tolerance toward other minorities, has brought some relief to those groups.
But the Bahais continue to endure ostracism because their prophet’s teachings clash with those of the Prophet Muhammad, whom Muslims follow.
The Bahai faith was established in 1863 by Mirza Husayn-Alf, known as Baha’u’ullah, or Glory of God. Shiites believe Muhammad was God’s final prophet on Earth, while Bahais believe Baha’u’ullah was the most recent messenger sent by God.
For the majority of Muslims, that is heresy. In Iran, treatment of Bahais worsened after the Islamic revolution, when Iran officially banned Bahais from government jobs and universities, and imprisoned those who held religious gatherings in their homes.
“The experience of the Bahai community since the Islamic Revolution has been a constant case of persecution and certainly discrimination,” said Joe Stork, acting head of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch.
Adding to the group’s pariah status in Iran is that Baha’u’ullah is buried in Israel, the country Iran sees as its No. 1 enemy.
Diane Ala’i, the Bahai International Community’s United Nations representative, said some had expected the situation would improve after the 1997 election of President Mohammad Khatami, who ran on a platform of social and political reform and vowed to protect ethnic and religious minorities.
“We thought the so-called reform movement would make a difference for Bahais,” Ala’i said in a phone interview from Geneva. “But we can’t see any difference. The Iranians are slowly suffocating the Bahais. A few have been released from prison, but that is because of … the UN, not from a different political environment in Iran.”
In the U.S., just being around other Bahais who worship freely offers comfort to those who once lived in fear of practicing their faith in Iran.
“Large gatherings of Bahais were banned [in Iran], so we used to gather in small numbers in people’s homes,” Khosrow said. “Now, we go to the Bahai temple.”
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