Baha'is share pain of a persecuted past

By Ellen Jean Hirst

Chicago Tribune

Published: Thursday, Jan. 24 2013 5:00 a.m. MST

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. One of those is Vahid Tizfahm, whose uncle now lives in Skokie, Ill.

"They cannot handle this religion in Iran, because this is too much freedom for people," Tizfahm's uncle Foolad Alavian said.

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.

Fullmer said U.S. senators and representatives from Illinois have taken the lead on resolutions condemning Iran's government for its state-sponsored persecution of Baha'is. 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, but the stories resonate with all Chicago Baha'is, said Fullmer.

Growing up in a relatively small town in the Iranian province of West Azerbaijan, called Urmia, many people knew Panahi's father, Habib'u'llah. He owned a large appliance shop and when a customer was in need, he was known to loan appliances, trusting the person to pay him back.

In 1979, an extremist group burned down his store, and at 17, Panahi was shipped off to Carbondale, Ill., where her father knew she'd be safe. She moved in with relatives she barely knew and began attending Southern Illinois University.

Although she learned English grammar at school in Iran, she had no conversational skills at first. No one in her classes at school was Baha'i. They had no idea what she went through in Iran, or even that her faith existed.

The only place she felt at ease speaking in English was at Baha'i gatherings. Still, the Baha'i community was very different from back home. While Panahi was used to gatherings of 200 or 300 people, here, they were lucky to have 10.

"It's more formal at home. (Chicago Baha'is) are more casual, but we are not," she said. "So that was a big shock."

Months after she arrived in the United States, Panahi's father was killed and she returned to Iran briefly.

"I forced myself to be strong," Panahi said. "I wanted to go back to the house, wanted to see exactly how it had happened."

When she returned to her father's home and opened the door, she saw a bullet hole and found a Persian rug, soaked with what she believed was her father's blood.

She eventually returned to SIU and graduated with a business administration degree. She and her sisters were granted refugee status, and her sisters came to live with her.

Panahi's sisters, Mina and Parisa, live with their mother in Golf, along with Parisa's husband and two children. 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 of her mother. "Every time she talks about it, she says, you know what, there was a plan. At least right now we have our family."

Bayzaee said the Baha'is are all family, and their persecution is just one more example of their resilience.

"Knowing that they belong to a group of Baha'is that have given the ultimate sacrifice - it just, it takes you to such a level of certitude and belief that you might not have otherwise had," Bayzaee said. "You rise to that occasion. I think that's what they did."

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