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Rally in Rio for Religious Freedom
A rally in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the seven Bahá’í leaders in Iran, known as the Yaran ("Friends in Iran"), who were incarcerated by the Iranian government in 2008. (Credit: Comunidade Bahá'í do Brasil/Flickr, cc by 2.0)

In a dim office in south London, I am alone at my computer. The shadows of trains pass in front of the sun. In the alley, a man begins tuning his guitar. One by one, I open the files I have been assigned to catalogue. One by one, I unlock a face, a name, a story. There are over two hundred. A community of believers who died for their faith.

I am constructing a wall of memory. Names, photographs. And for those without a snapshot, a single red candle, unflickering in virtual space.

This should be ancient history. This should be a research paper on early Christian martyrs. Every file should bear names and dates far removed from modern consciousness. But instead, I find myself looking at high school students, mothers, newlyweds, grandparents. Men in flared pant suites and lipsticked girls with fiery eyes. Their dates of death are a rough variation on a theme: 1980, 1981, 1983.

In 1979, Iranians overthrew the Shah for a new Islamic republic, led by a Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. Now, in the clergy-controlled state, there are only four official religions: Islam (preferrably Shi'ism), Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism.

Left off the list is Iran's largest religious minority, the Bahá’í Faith, whose followers are deemed heretics and systematically persecuted. The persecutions began at the religion's birth, when its founder, Baha'u'llah, declared his revelation in 1863. Thousands of Iranians converted to the Faith, leading to mass arrests and killings, the destruction of Bahá’í property, and the banning of students from places of learning.

With intermittent lulls, the arrests and hate crimes continue to the present day. In May 2008, seven Bahá’í leaders were arrested and thrown into prison, for the simple fact of their beliefs. Their arrests were an eerie reminder of the abduction of the Bahá’í leadership in 1981. That year, all nine members of the Iranian Bahá’í Spiritual Assembly disappeared. They are presumed dead.

Memorandum from the Iranian Supreme Revolutionary Cultural CouncilIn addition to targeting Bahá’í leadership, the Iranian government has made no secret of its efforts to bar Bahá’ís from education and employment. In a private memo signed by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei in 1991, the "Bahá’í question" was clearly and ominously addressed. Some excerpts:

"The government’s dealings with them must be in such a way that their progress and development are blocked."

"They must be expelled from universities, either in the admission process or during the course of their studies, once it becomes known that they are Bahá’ís."

"Deny them employment if they identify themselves as Bahá’ís."

"Deny them any position of influence, such as in the educational sector, etc."

"A plan must be devised to confront and destroy their cultural roots outside the country."

Today, these seven Bahá’í leaders have been in prison for five years. They are sentenced to 20 years, the longest to be served by prisoners of conscience in Iran today. All over the world, from Washington DC to London and Budapest, people are coming together to demand their release.

5 years too many

As I sat in that dark London office, alone with the faces and stories of women and men who refused to deny their faith and were put to death because of it, I began to see their sacrifice in a more human light. This is a world that too easily contains death and sacrifice in two-dimensional space, flattening out suffering into a stark chiaroscuro of darkness and light. But in some ways, this denies the relevance of their lives to ours. Although most of us will never be called upon to lay down our lives, each of us will be tested.

There is a dark privilege to being so close — in history's time — to religious persecution. It enables us to remember the richness of human life and voice sacrificed to ignorance and hatred.

The privilege is that we are not left with only paper icons in a Book of Saints. We have living proof of the Iranian Bahá’ís' sacrifice in the lives of their children and relatives. I encourage everyone who meets an Iranian Bahá’í not to be shy. Ask to hear their stories.

For me, the privilege of handling the files of executed Bahá’ís is that it enabled me to view these believers from another time and place as part of my own life story. And though we are left with only memories, these soul scraps are more precious to me than any physical remains.

They are traces of human beings who learned to drink the bitter with the sweet. Memories of weddings, a favorite poem, and the dreams a young girl who dove headfirst into the ocean, arms and legs flying.


Andréana LeftonA.E. Lefton is a poet, journalist, and educator currently living in Budapest, Hungary. She is a programs manager at the Romedia Foundation, which works to change perceptions of Europe's Roma people through film, advocacy, and education. You can read more of her thoughts on education and social justice on FireWired.


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7 Comments

With deepest thanks for this holistic, empathetic, compassionate and thoughtfully written piece.

this is lovely, very well written with grace as all your writings are and a reminder that these issues exist even today.

Thank you,

Brandon Scott
brandonscottblog.com

Heartfelt appreciation from the Baha'is of Old Saybrook, CT for this article on the imprisoned Baha'is in Iran.

Thank you for bring the crimes of the Iranian Government and the suffering of our brothers and sisters in Iran to light by giving voice to the voiceless!

Dear A.E,

Thank you for raising your voice as a witness to the suffering of your fellow Baha'is in Iran. Your witness to their ongoing oppression is one which uniquely frames the persecution and death so many have faced in all the human contours of pain and sorrow, of young lives cut short and long ones brutally snuffed out in their waning days.

Your touching tribute to the humanity of those lost to the Iranian regime's attacks inspires me not only to continue to raise awareness of these wrongs against Baha'is, but to do more to publicize and put into a human context the horrific, ongoing targeting of people everywhere, especially those of my own faith: Orthodox Christians suffering in Israel, Turkey, Palestine, and especially Syria and Egypt.

Reading your touching tribute to Baha'i victims of the Islamic Republic of Iran's brutal program of religious persecution, the History student in me cannot help but call to mind the haunting continuity of religious persecution from ancient times onward, and from last century to today.

As a Holocaust survivor said to me when I was 14, "Change begins by not seeking revenge. Hatred is the cancer of the human spirit, fed by fear and ignorance". I pray that ours is the generation to wake up more completely than our forebears have done, to the great potential we have to change, simply by learning to transcend the impulses which cause fear and hatred to reign in so many hearts. If we look at the last century, we have a lot of work ahead to do:

The 20th century dawned with the first attempted genocide of a people, the Armenians, by nationalist anti-Christian extremists in Turkey. Eastern Europe saw numerous pogroms which haunted Jewish shtetels until the 1920s, when a new kind of religious persecution dawned there.

The USSR would see some 20 million Orthodox Christians put to death by a Soviet regime committed to wiping out all faiths, but which harbored a special hatred for the Faith which had been the official one in Russia before the Revolution. In my Faith, we count so many women and men among these witnesses - this is what the Greek word "martyr" means - that we refer to the thousands of them en masse as "New Martyrs".

After the world learned of the horrors of the Ustasce and the Nazis' Holocaust during the 1940s, everyone said "Never again", but in a terrible turn, the 1948 formation of the State of Israel saw massacres by both Jewish settlers and Muslim and Christian Palestinians against each other. India's partition saw several million people die in Hindu-Muslim sectarian violence in 1947-48 alone, while the 1990s ended with state-sponsored ethno-religious cleansing of Muslim Bosnians by Orthodox Serbs.

Your piece is chilling and thought-provoking in the best possible way. May you continue to be a voice for those who cannot speak from behind the silent wall of an old photo or whose identity and fate remain unknown. For all the red vigil candles which stand in for a missing Baha'i mother, father, sister, brother, husband or wife - may your work serve to bring names and recognition to these people suffering in silence.

A loving and thoughtful essay reflecting the pain and rewards of sacrifice. What a privilege to be given, and to be able to report the experience; not to forget the love it engenders.

This is but a wonderful article. Thank you so much.

apples