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Strength of faith battles tyranny

Farzad Azizi was studying in the United States when the Shah of Iran was deposed and the new government began arresting prominent members of the Baha'i faith. The Palm Harbor man's father and two uncles were among those executed.

St. Petersburg lawyer Sepideh Eskandari and her family were more fortunate. They escaped and sought asylum in the United States. Eskandari was 8.

Memories of the late 1970s and early '80s persecution are fresh in their memories, but news of the arrest of six Iranian Baha'i leaders May 14 and a seventh in March has deepened the pain and heightened their anxieties for those left behind.

The actions of the Iranian government have been condemned by governments, human rights groups and religious organizations. In this country, members of the faith are urging support of a U.S. House of Representatives resolution condemning the Iranian government's continued persecution of Bahai's.

Saturday, local Bahai's will hold a prayer vigil in St. Petersburg.

Azizi, a computer systems engineer, was accompanied by his wife, Beverly, who is from Costa Rica, and their two American-born sons, Arash, 13, and Arya, 9.

Azizi, 55, came to America in 1973 to attend college, but couldn't go home after the Shah was overthrown and an Islamic republic established. The revolution marked the start of oppression of Baha'is in recent times, Azizi said. Many were arrested and their property and bank accounts seized, he said.

His parents, a brother and two sisters were living in England at the time, but his father had to return to Iran to help his elderly mother. He was arrested soon after. In prison, he sent a message to his brothers, both prominent leaders in the Baha'i community, warning them that they were in danger. Escape was not an option.

"They had already been elected to serve and that is what they wanted to do,'' Azizi said

"For you to run to save your life, it's antithetical to service,'' added his wife, who helped tell the story, which is recounted with others, in the book, Iran's Secret Pogrom: The Conspiracy to Wipe out the Baha'is.

Baha'i prisoners were told that if they recanted their faith, they would be freed and their property returned, Azizi said.

"They had a choice and they refused,'' he said.

"I remember at that time there was a lot of international outcry. President Reagan sent a message asking them to release these Baha'is. Soon after that, they executed a few of the Baha'is. The rest of the Baha'is knew what was coming.''

His father was executed on Aug. 29, 1981. His family learned about his death when his name appeared in the newspapers.

"My uncles went frantically to see if that was true and tried to recover the body. Finally they were able to locate the body,'' said Azizi, a member of the Pinellas County Baha'i Assembly in Clearwater.

His maternal uncles were arrested later and were executed and buried in secret graves. Azizi said his elderly grandmother was also imprisoned. She died shortly after her release.

For Eskandari, the St. Petersburg lawyer, the kindness of Muslim friends saved her family. They warned her parents to escape with their three daughters. The family arrived in St. Petersburg in 1979 and found the local Baha'i community through the Yellow Pages.

Almost three decades later, Eskandari is treasurer of the local spiritual assembly and has her office next door to the St. Petersburg center. The transition to America was difficult, she said.

"My parents gave away a lot of our possessions,'' she said, and arrived in America with little money. "There was a lot of suffering,'' Eskandari, 39, said.

But that's nothing compared to what those who have been left behind endure, she said.

Her eyes welling up with tears, the immigration lawyer said she feels sad about the oppression of Iran's Baha'is, but "guilty, too, that they're there and we're here.''

There are reportedly 300,000 to 350,000 Baha'is in Iran. Baha'is have had a perilous history in Iran. In the mid 1880s, shortly after the religion's founding, about 20,000 followers were killed by the authorities and mobs, who believed the movement was heretical to Islam. Baha'i News Service reports more than 200 Baha'is were killed in Iran between 1978 and 1998 and hundreds imprisoned. The Iranian government banned all formal Baha'i activity in 1983.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reports that during the past year, young Baha'i schoolchildren in primary and secondary schools "increasingly have been attacked, vilified, pressured to convert to Islam, and in some cases, expelled on account of their religion.''

The religion was founded in the mid 19th century by Baha'u'llah, a Shiite Muslim born into a wealthy Persian family, who gave up his life of privilege to serve the poor.

Baha'is believe in a series of divine manifestations that include Moses, Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed. Baha'u'llah, they believe, is the latest in a series of divine messengers. Baha'u'llah's teachings exhort followers to strive for world peace and the unity of all religions and people.

There are 6-million Baha'is worldwide.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

>>IF YOU GO

Prayer vigil

Prayers for Iranian Baha'is, 7 p.m. Saturday, Baha'i Center of St. Petersburg, 676 Second Ave. S, St. Petersburg. Call Ellen, 637-3529.

Strength of faith battles tyranny 05/27/08 [Last modified: Friday, May 30, 2008 11:29am]

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