Baha’i Persecution: Day 1
I’ve waited all month for this. The Baha’is have been exceedingly kind to me as I’ve explored their faith. They’ve welcomed me into their world with open arms…as if I were already one of them. Now, I get the chance to compensate them for their hospitality.
Week Three of Project Conversion in any given month covers social issues within the faith. Few struggles penetrate the hearts of the Baha’i faithful as deeply as the their persecution in Iran. For the next four days, I will post an account of one person with a family member currently serving jail time in Iran…simply for being Baha’i.
The first account is that of Ms. Azadeh Rohanian Perry, sister-in-law of Mr. Saeid Rezaei, a Baha’i leader currently in prison. Thank you Ms. Ariel Olson Surowidjojo, Media Relations Officer of External Affairs for the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the U.S. for providing this information. You can read more about the situation in Iran here.
“I was born into a Bahá’í family in Shiraz, Iran. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the persecution of Bahá’ís increased significantly. My family members lost their jobs and were expelled from school. My sister’s house was burned, and she and another sister lost everything in the fire. Almost all our Muslim ‘friends’ turned away from us, and my classmates couldn’t talk to me if they wished to go to University. I was not expelled, but I had constant difficulties, including psychological manipulation and pressure not only from teachers and administrators, but from religious clerics. For example, at one time people used to come and throw stones at our house and break windows. They even said that they would attack the house and rape the girls, so we had to go and stay at a friend’s house for a week or so, until the group got tired and gave up.
In this period, in Shiraz, hundreds of Bahá’ís were imprisoned and 27 were executed—a majority of these were our close family friends, including the 17-year-old Mona Mahmudnizhad (executed in 1983 for teaching Bahá’í children’s classes) and her dear father Yadu’llah Mahmudnizhad, two eminent Bahá’ís, our family doctor, and my sisters’ and brothers’ close friends.
Three months before Mona Mahmudnizhad’s arrest, in the summer of 1982, we moved to Mazindaran (a province in the North of Iran). Our house was in the middle of nowhere. When I went to my first day of school there, I refused to demonstrate against America, England and Israel in political rallies, and the principal would not allow me into the class. For two or three months, I sat in the schoolyard every day with nothing to do. Our family eventually moved back to Shiraz in 1986.
I left Iran in May 1987. My parents asked me to leave Iran because they feared for my safety, especially in the event anything were to happen to them. My brothers were leaving, my parents’ extended families were Muslim, and with women’s rights as they are in Iran they thought it best that I also escape. With little choice, I left Iran on May 6, 1987.
At that time, Bahá’ís couldn’t get passports and the only way one could leave Iran was to escape through either Turkey’s or Pakistan’s border. I left with a group of 15 people, including my oldest brother and his family. The trip was difficult, dangerous and took 10 days. We went from one smuggler’s hands to the next, all in great secrecy. We walked over mountains and desert under the cover of night, and several times our lives were in danger. The smugglers stole all my belongings. Eventually, I got my asylum paper and arrived in Lahore, Pakistan. Two weeks later, I was hit by a car, breaking my back. I was put in a body cast and was told I would probably never walk again. (Of course, I did.)
I lived in Lahore, Pakistan for 19 months as a Bahá’í refugee and then went to Melbourne, Australia in December 1989. I met my husband, Mark Perry, in Haifa, Israel in June 2000 and we got married in January 2001. I then moved to the United States, and we settled in Chapel Hill, NC in August 2001.
Relationship with my brother-in-law Saeid Rezaie:
On May 14, 2008, we received a phone call from Iran. It was my sister Shahin and her husband Saeid telling us that they just sent us a package of goodies. Our relationship had been refreshed by two recent reunions after not having seen each other for 18 years. In March 2005, my husband Mark and I had a joyful meeting with them and other family members in Dubai. After 18 years, we were finally together again, and it was so wonderful to see my sisters, their families and my mother. We all had a great time together and decided that, while we can, we should meet again soon. So in August 2006, we had another reunion—this time in India—and again had a great time. Now on the phone, we remembered those reunions and laughed. At the end of the conversation, Saeid said let’s plan another trip where we can get together again.
Three days later, another one of my sisters called and gave me the news that Saeid had been arrested, along with other members of the Yaran, the appointed stewards of the Iranian Bahá’í community. I couldn’t believe it. I was in shock and kept saying “Are you sure? I just talked to him three days ago.” My sister said, unfortunately, it was true. I then called my sister Shahin. I knew I had to be careful what I said because their phone would be tapped. She confirmed that he had been arrested. She said they had been taken to Evin prison and then apologized she hadn’t called me herself. The authorities had taken their address book along with many of their other possessions.
This was not the first time Saeid had been arrested. In April 2005—right after our reunion in Dubai—he had been arrested and held in Evin prison with five other Bahá’í men for six weeks. He told us about his experience in prison when we visited in India. He told us how he had been thinking about all of us and praying for us. We also heard stories from their two daughters, Martha and Maaman, and my other niece Rahil, who had been arrested and held for a week in May 2006 along with 51 other youth from Shiraz for conducting a Bahá’í-inspired literacy program with underprivileged youths. As part of their punishment, they were required to attend a three-year Islamic re-education class. This required the two young women to travel from Tehran to Shiraz every month.
Saeid’s second arrest was a different matter. For the first six months, all seven of the Yaran were held in solitary confinement and no family members were allowed to visit. Finally after six months, they let them have visitors, so my sister, her two daughters and pre-adolescent son were once again able to see him. Since that time, I have been calling Shahin once or twice a week to see what is happening, to hear any news and to make sure my sister and her family are doing okay. Of course, they try to be strong for one another, but they miss him very much. My nephew Peyvand has just started high school and he recently commented to my sister that he went through his entire middle school without having his dad around.
Saeid is such a wonderful father, a great husband and a very kind human being. I have known him for a long time and all I remember is how he has wanted to serve his faith and to help people. To see him now imprisoned (going-on three years) for no reason is truly heartbreaking. These individuals are innocent and don’t deserve to be in prison for a single day. I am very worried about his and the others’ health.
I met Saeid when I was very young, before he married my sister. We were living in Shiraz. At one point, we moved to a house and some of our neighbors were relatives of his. When Saeid graduated from university, he moved to the northern part of Iran where he and a friend planned to start an agricultural endeavor and to serve the Bahá’í community. He would come to visit his family as much as he could, and each time he came, we would see him and hear of all the activities he was engaged in. One of these times when he came to visit, he showed his interest in my sister and asked her to go out. His trips back to Shiraz increased. He would travel all the way just to see my sister for a short time, and then he would return home on the bus. The care he had for family and the people around him always amazed me.
When he and my sister got married, she moved to the north with him. It was so hard for us to say goodbye, but we knew she would be happy because Saeid was so wonderful. A year later, my family moved, as well, to the north in order to be close to them, and also because they needed a Bahá’í family to move there. There Saeid had many classes for youth and older children, which I attended. Saeid was unable to get a job after his graduation because he was a Bahá’í, so he would do any job to make a living.
One summer he was working on his sister’s house, and my brother and I would go and help him. It was so much fun. We laughed a lot together, and again I got to see again how wonderful and caring he was. I have so many memories of Saeid, and it makes me so proud to know him and to have him as my brother-in-law. Eventually, we all moved back to Shiraz, where Shahin and Saeid raised their children up until four years ago, when their family moved to Tehran in order for him to fulfill his responsibilities as one of the seven members of the Yaran.
In August, when the judge announced the 20-year sentence for the seven Yaran, it was shocking news. Then, without informing their families or lawyers, they moved them to Gohardasht prison in the city of Karaj. We heard that the conditions of this prison are even worse than in Evin prison. One of the few improvements is that they are now able to call their family members from a phone in the prison. So early one morning, about 4 am, in late summer, we awoke to our phone ringing. We picked it up to hear—after two years time—Saeid’s voice on the other end. We couldn’t believe it. He told us how much he missed us all and how he thought about all the wonderful times we had together in Dubai and India. He said that he was praying for everyone and wanted us to be strong and content. After hanging up, I couldn’t fall back asleep; I was so thrilled to hear his voice. Twice since then we have been able to speak with Saeid over the phone.
Since the members of the Yaran were moved to Gohardasht prison, the female and male members of the family can’t visit in the same week; so my sister and her two daughters make the two-hour trip and visit Saeid one week and my thirteen-year-old nephew visits him the next week.
My heart is in Iran every day. I think about the seven members of the Yaran all the time and can’t stop worrying about them. I miss Saeid and his family very much, and every day I pray for all of them and ask God to protect them. This is all I can do.”