In 1697, a 20-year-old man was hanged in Edinburgh for blasphemy. Authorities “wanted his death to serve as a warning to other would-be dissidents.” In 1983 a 15-year-old Iranian girl, Mona, was hanged in Shiraz together with nine other Baha’i women for “being a member of the Baha’i Faith.”
Those hangings also were meant as warnings.
Such persecutions have been visited upon Iranian Baha’is for nearly two centuries. Last October, an Iranian court acquitted 11 Iranians who had demolished the homes of Baha’is. “No wrongdoing had occurred,” the court found, because “ownership of property by the 27 Baha’is” was not valid “due to their membership in the Baha’i Faith.”
This decision was significant, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Baha’i Public Affairs Office, because it represents a “departure from prior written opinions.” In the past, judges have admitted orally that “religious discrimination has been the reason for their decisions,” but in written opinions they’ve been careful to justify similar confiscations by technicalities, such as alleged violations of zoning/permitting ordinances, or inconsistencies between permitted and actual use of property.
This written admission of discrimination is “worrisome” because it “may signal a growing lack of concern with public opinion,” the spokesman said, “especially international public opinion. Such opinion has long been the primary mitigator of Iranian government persecution against Baha’is.”Having worked with Iranian Baha’is over decades, I’ve been fascinated by their stories of injustices suffered in their home country. Their lack of bitterness as they tell those stories is impressive.
Religious persecution is not new; it’s rampant around the world, along with racism, sexism and other systemic prejudices. Baha’is in Iran — men, women, even children — have been ostracized, tortured, mutilate and killed since the 1850s. The Baha’i faith is recognized globally as an independent world religion, yet certain Muslim governments view it as blasphemous, its members deserving of death, just as the government of Edinburgh perceived Christian blasphemy in 1697.
The Baha’i community in Whitman and Latah counties is small. You probably know someone who is part of it. I belong to it. We’re in all walks of life: teachers, mechanics, 4-Hers, agriculturists, Scouts, builders, maintenance people, homeschoolers, medical people, engineers, gardeners, artists, tech support folks, even writers. We’re your neighbors. We believe in the Old and New Testaments as well as the Quran. We believe Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, and other major prophets were all from the same God, speaking for Him at different times. We also believe that Baha’u’llah, founder of the Baha’i faith, was the latest of these messengers.
Like a healthy ecosystem, we thrive on diversity. Diversity strengthens our unity. In other localities we’re more “colorful” than here on the Palouse, with minorities of all shades and cultures. But in any community, different perspectives offer multiple insights that help strengthen and build that community. Theocracies don’t welcome this kind of thinking.
Can you imagine? Our scriptures explicitly recognize women and men as equal! We seek gender equality in occupation, pay, housekeeping, child-rearing and education. One exception: if necessary, girls have priority for education because, as mothers, they will be the first educators of their children.
Our constitution guarantees religious freedom and separates church and state. Recent events, and letters appearing in these pages, raise questions about that separation. Pressure seems to be growing throughout our nation to inflict certain militant belief systems — demonstrably false — on others, with little tolerance for dissent.
My beliefs do not accord with such extremism. Besides gender equality, I believe in justice for minorities. Racial divisions are artificial, absurd, hateful. As science unraveled the human genome, it demonstrated we are one humanity, a beautiful rainbow with an infinite diversity of sizes, shapes, colors, talents and potentials. This science accords with my faith system. I am free to resist the lies and hatred of current extreme intolerance. I’m also free even to embrace the liars and haters, if necessary, in hopes of creating a more peaceful, just society. We in America share these freedoms, at least for now. It’s something we dare not lose. We still worship — or not — as we please.
We still have that freedom. Iranian Baha’is never had it.