SPRING HILL — The eyes of the world are on Iran as several countries, the European Union and Amnesty International protest the imprisonment of seven leaders of the Baha'i faith accused of spying for Israel.
The United States, England and Canada are among the governments that have condemned the treatment of the five men and two women, who have been incarcerated since last March at Evin prison in Tehran.
The Hernando County Baha'is joined with others of their faith throughout the United States on Monday, beginning a 19-day fast that the Baha'i community will use to focus its thoughts and prayers on the situation in Iran. The local group of about 30 members will also host an interfaith devotional at 7 p.m. Friday at Spring Hill United Church of Christ.
"It's going to be open to the public," said Lili Carson, acting public information officer for the group. "We sent out 18 or 20 personal invitations to clergy from all the other religions we have here in Spring Hill. We're hoping they all will come and bring members of their congregations."
According to an official Baha'i Web site — iran.bahai.us — the seven religious leaders have also been charged with insulting religious sanctities and propaganda against the Islamic republic.
"These charges are unfounded and no evidence against them has been brought to light," says the Web site, which notes that the prisoners have been denied access to their attorney, the Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi.
A news release being distributed by Carson says the Iranian Student News Agency announced on Feb. 11 that charges had been laid against the seven imprisoned members of the national-level committee that coordinates activities for the Iranian Baha'i community. The report quoted deputy Tehran prosecutor Hassan Haddad as having said "the case will be sent to the revolutionary court next week."
It is expected that a trial could soon take place.
"Unfortunately, there are many more (than the seven) that are imprisoned in Iran," Carson said. "These seven happen to be officials for our national spiritual assembly there. We're waiting day by day to hear any news. It's terrible in this day and age that we still don't have freedom of religion in certain parts of the world."
According to the Web site, some 300,000 Baha'is live throughout Iran, making it the country's largest minority religion. The persecution, they report, has been taking place since the religion — which emphasizes the similarities of the major religions and social equality — began there in the mid 19th century.
An article published Feb. 21 in the Salt Lake Tribune and quoted in the Iran Press News reports that nearly a half-million Bahai's have been persecuted by the Iranian government since the 1979 Iranian revolution. In the past 20 years, says the article, more than 200 Bahai's have been executed or killed, hundreds more have been imprisoned and tens of thousands have been deprived of jobs, pensions, businesses and educational opportunities.
More than 200 Muslim scholars in Iran have signed a document that reads: "We are ashamed. A century and a half of oppression and silence is enough," the article says.
Last week, in an e-mail response to concerns brought to her by the local Baha'i group, U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite wrote in part:
"As you know, Congressman Mark Steven Kirk introduced (a resolution), condemning the Government of Iran for its state-sponsored persecution of its Baha'i minority and its continued violation of the International Covenants on Human Rights. Congress has introduced and passed these non-binding resolutions expressing disapproval of Iran's treatment of the Baha'is almost every two years since 1982. There is no doubt that the persecution of religious and political minorities goes against everything that this country stands for.
"I fear however, that if U.S. and United Nations sanctions against Iran have not stopped them from pursuing dangerous nuclear weapons, a non-binding resolution from Congress may be little more than symbolism."
Carson said the Iranian government "has no respect for human rights."
"They don't want any religion but their own," she said. "It's not like the United States. Thank God we can have a synagogue in one corner, a Catholic church in another and a Baptist church in the other, and we all live happily."
Carson said because many people do not know what Baha'is believe, they will have literature available about their faith and its practices at the Friday event.
"We'll also be there to talk to anyone and to explain what's going on in Iran," she said.
There will be no set program.
"It's going to be very open, just getting together," she said. "It's a unity of all religion so that we can all pray that these people will be let go and exonerated and that the persecution of religion that's going on in Iran will end."