Losing my religion

Written by Genevieve Worrell

AS BABAK and Shahnaz Rahmanian flick silently through a memoir book containing 300 faces and stories, their emotion shows that neither distance, nor time, can heal the pain.

Although now living in Brisbane, the couple recall vividly the endless executions and disappearances they witnessed, the violence that constantly threatened members of their faith in Iran.

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Baha’i faith has been systematically outlawed, made illegitimate by the ongoing persecution of Baha’i community members. For Babak, the persecution of members of his faith was witnessed first hand.

“In the middle of the night, we were sleeping. They came and knocked on the door and [rang] the bell, everything was going. My dad opened the door and they came in, a few of them, with the guns… machine guns.”

Babak’s father, Ali, and uncle, Abbas, were members of the local Baha’i spiritual assembly in Iran. The group were targeted by government agents and falsely accused of spying for Israel and threatening national security.

“They said, ‘go back to your room’. They put all of us, my mum and us kids, in one room and they locked the door. They arrested my uncle and my dad. They were imprisoned for five and a half years.”

Babak’s story highlights only one case of violent persecution, but in the past nine years, there have been 50 physical assaults on members of the Baha’i faith and 49 recorded arson attacks.

Beyond physical attacks, the current persecution of Baha’i persons in Iran has extended to unjustified raids, where Islamic State agents target Baha’i schools, homes, and businesses.

Soulmaz Rostami, whose parents moved to Australia from Iran prior to the revolution, still keeps in contact with family members who are experiencing what she calls a ‘neo-apartheid’.

“My aunty, she was sitting at home and then gets a knock on the door. [She] opens the door, and two men come in and raid the house. They smash all the computers, take all the books.”

Soulmaz’s aunt, Nahid Pourmoradian, was imprisoned for two months in 2011 following the home invasion. Simultaneous to the raid on her Nahid’s home, a neighbour was arrested.

“They raided the young woman next door, who was breastfeeding her two-month old child at the time. They left the child home alone, and took the woman. The woman was screaming and crying ‘my child!’”

Since 2005, over 700 Baha’is have been arrested in Iran, most on false charges. More than 100 are currently languishing in prison, with 52 cases in the past decade of Baha’is experiencing torture while incarcerated.

“They were tortured, especially for the first couple of years, very hard, to make them convert.” Babak recalls of his father and uncle’s imprisonment.

Such torture, says Babak, included beatings, solitary confinement, and deprivation of food and medication. Baha’i inmates were kept in two-by-two metre rooms with up to eight other people, in 40 degree Celsius heat.

Soulmaz confirms the brutal treatment of Baha’i inmates.

“They get raped, they get molested, but it’s more emotional torture. There’ll be a daughter and father in prison; they’ll rape the daughter in front of the father to get the father to recant his faith. They yell, ‘say you’re a Muslim and I’ll stop doing this’.”

Since the revolution, many Baha’is have gone missing from their homes, only to be found dead weeks, months, or years later.

Soulmaz recounts the story of her uncle, Saman Pourmoradian, who disappeared from his home 10 years ago. ‘The family get a phone call saying “you can go find him in the mountains of Iran.”’

“So everybody gets in the car and they go and drive. They search for two, three days and try to find him. He’s dead in a well; at the bottom of a well covered with rocks.”

Attacks on Baha’i persons in Iran are not limited to the living. Since 2005, there have been 42 reported incidences of vandalism to Baha’i graves.

The vandalism and desecration is often disguised as a necessity in order for the government to use the cemetery land for infrastructure purposes.

“The burial process is very spiritual and the act of digging up and dismantling the grave is an act of disrespect, purposely, to prove a point.” Soulmaz says.

Further persecution is evident through the Iranian government’s legislation against access to tertiary education for Baha’i students, by applying a declaration of religion as mandatory on university application forms.

Soulmaz’s cousins remain in Iran, and due to bans on movement in and out of the country, she has never met them, nor her grandmother.

“All my cousins in Iran I’ve never met, but they’ll finish high school and they can’t study to become anything. They can’t be anything professional or have a government job.”

Babak Rahmanian’s 18-year-old daughter, Pareesa, was educated in Australia and now attends university in Brisbane. She knows how lucky she is to have access to higher education as a practicing Baha’i.

“All of my cousins in Iran graduate top of their class but they have no chance to go any further in the Iranian education system. I think most of us in Australia take for granted the chance to go to university, and to receive the education we do without barriers,” she says.

Despite being in constant fear for their life and future prosperity, followers of the faith in Iran refuse to take retributive action, and strive instead for a peaceful outcome.

“The beautiful part is the response, not an eye for an eye; they just try to seek justice in the most graceful way, through communication, letters, and the justice system, as much as they’re not being heard,” says Soulmaz.

While the United Nations has voiced concerns over the persecution, no intervention has been undertaken to investigate or prosecute members of the extremist regime at the current date.


This post was originally published on Golden-I UQ 2014.