Praying for Religious Freedom

February 26, 2009

Author: Yonat Shimron

Source: The News & Observer

Two Friday nights ago, Akbar Rahmani checked his e-mail and found a letter from Bahá'í headquarters telling him that the Iranian government planned to put on trial seven of his fellow believers within a matter of days.

He ran downstairs with a printed copy of the e-mail message and showed it to his wife, Elaheh.

The couple, immigrants from Iran living in Cary, wasted no time.

Within minutes, they had sent e-mail to every Bahá'í (pronounced ba-HIGH) in the Cary area and invited them to devotional prayers in their living room the next day.

Praying for the seven Bahá'í leaders, imprisoned since May in Tehran, has become a nightly ritual since the Iranian government announced their imminent trial. The seven Iranians have been charged with spying for Israel and using propaganda against the Islamic Republic, charges that few consider credible.

This community, like those worldwide, is accustomed to persecution. The independent, monotheistic faith founded in Iran (then Persia) in 1844 has long faced resistance, but even more so since the Iranian Revolution 30 years ago.

The faith was born as an offshoot of Islam, and many in the Muslim world consider it heretical. Iranians in particular have shown little tolerance. The homes of Bahá'ís have been burned and their businesses shuttered. University education is forbidden, as are government jobs.

The faith's 500 adherents in the Triangle consist of immigrants from Iran, as well as recent converts who have found the religion, with its emphasis on racial unity, gender equality and dialogue among different faiths, appealing.

At a prayer gathering last week, a group of black, white and Hispanic people gathered to pray in four languages -- Persian, Arabic, English and Spanish. There are no clergy in the Bahá'í faith, so the participants took turns reciting a favorite reading, whether a chant from the Bahá'í sacred writings or a biblical Psalm.

Photos of the seven middle-age Bahá'í prisoners -- five men and two women -- stood framed on the mantelpiece in one Cary home last week where devotional prayers were held.

"I'm just terrified that a state in the year 2009 has government policies to eradicate a minority religious community," Kathy Lee of Durham said. "It's just frightening to know this is still occurring."