Persecuted past: Baha'is find religious freedom in U.S.

ELLEN JEAN HIRST Updated: January 28, 2013 at 12:00 am • Published: January 28, 2013

CHICAGO • One skinny scar lies just to the side of Minoo Panahi’s left eye from when a Muslim classmate threw a rock at her. Several round spots mark her face — the result of a nervous scratching habit developed after years of stress. An emotional ache lingers decades after her father was murdered, shot in the head when he opened the front door.

Panahi is one of a many Baha’is who share the pain of a persecuted past.

An estimated 12,000 Baha’is have fled Iran for the United States since 1980, making up about 7 percent of 170,000 Baha’is in the country.

With language and cultural barriers, the adjustment to Western society can be difficult, Panahi and her sisters said. What’s more difficult is the healing process.

But here in the U.S., in a vista so different from their homeland, Baha’i immigrants say they find support, religious freedom and peace in the prayerful folds of their communities.

Prayer is central to the community’s support — a familiar comfort to those who have moved thousands of miles from their torn homeland.

“If it wasn’t for the Baha’i faith, I don’t think we would have really been able to process what the whole family has gone through, because it was so traumatic,” Panahi said.

In America, that faith is practiced largely in Baha’i homes. The Baha’i House of Worship is used for private meditation and prayer most of the year, but Baha’is don’t typically gather there for group worship. Instead, every 19 days, the length of a Baha’i month, they meet at a community faith member’s home for worship, announcements and food — events called feasts.

Many of the Baha’is who move here say they do so to leave a restrictive, dangerous and fear-based land. Baha’is believe in the “essential oneness of all world religions,” said Glen Fullmer, director of communications for the Baha’is of the United States. They believe many prophets such as Muhammad, Jesus and Buddha are legitimate, along with Baha’u’llah — whom Baha’is believe to be the most recent prophet in a cycle of about 1,000 years. But many Baha’is who come from Iran say the government there doesn’t allow them to practice.

“(Iranian government officials) actually don’t recognize the Baha’i faith as a religion,” Panahi said. “So when they find out you’re Baha’i, for them it’s almost like you’re nonexistent.”

Baha’is in Iran cannot attend universities, participate in government or own a business without fear of having it stripped without cause. Seven Baha’i faith leaders have been imprisoned since 2008, sentenced to 20 years in 2010.

More than 100 others are behind bars, charged with espionage and propaganda activities against the Islamic state, but their only real crime is their faith, the Baha’is of the United States reported.

On Jan. 1, Congress passed a resolution spearheaded by U.S. Rep. Bob Dold of Illinois. It called on the U.S. president and secretary of state to demand the release of Baha’i religious prisoners in Iran, who have doubled from 56 to 116 since the beginning of 2011.

The exact number of Baha’is killed in Iran each year is not known.

Panahi said her mother, who spent nearly eight years in prison in Iran for her religious beliefs, taught her the strength of her Baha’i faith.

“She’s such a strong lady,” Panahi said. “Every time she talks about it, she says, ‘You know what, there was a plan. At least right now we have our family.’”

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