The 2,700 or so followers of the Bahai faith in Southern California enjoy a life their brethren in Iran have cause to desire.
Here, they have access to education, work, and, most importantly for them, the right to worship.
Iran’s fundamentalist Shiite government has barred the country’s 300,000 Bahai from holding government jobs, attending universities and practicing their religion, according to human-rights groups and the United Nations. Conditions have worsened in recent years, observers say, and now seven leaders of Iran’s Bahai community are held in Tehran’s Evin prison, where they face charges of espionage and possible execution.
Their imprisonment has been condemned by the United States and human-rights groups, who see it as evidence of Iran’s persistent persecution of Bahais, its largest non-Muslim minority. It has weighed heavily on the faith’s adherents in Los Angeles.
Nonetheless, the Bahai’s response to the arrests has been understated, at least in public. Local Bahais -- immigrants and American converts -- have neither taken to the streets in protest, nor have they tried to ride the wave of international indignation over Iran’s disputed presidential election last month.
To do so, they said, would run counter to their religious principles of love, compassion and trustworthiness.
“These tests and difficulties have a purpose to them. They help us grow spiritually,” said Randy Dobbs, a Western-born Bahai leader who lives in Los Angeles. “Persecution makes people come together.”
In recent weeks, especially before the postponement of a July 11 trial date for the imprisoned leaders in Iran, Dobbs and others had quietly courted media attention here. They also have hosted support meetings at the large Bahai Center on Rodeo Drive near Culver City for relatives of the imprisoned Iranians.
Dobbs said that the Bahai faith is a religion of peace, and that its followers are required to support the government wherever they live. He said Bahais in Iran don’t want to meddle in the country’s politics, they just want their rights.
The roots of the Bahai faith stretch to 19th century Persia. It was there that a man who called himself the Bab, which comes from the Arabic term for “the gate,” said he was a divine messenger. He said his mission was to prepare the way for the coming of a greater messenger, according to Bahai teachings.
In the 1850s, a Tehran man who became known as Baha’ullah, which comes from the Arabic term for “the glory of God,” claimed to be such a messenger, sent to unify history’s great religions and bring the world peace. Baha’ullah said that he and other founders of the world’s religions, among them Moses, Buddha, Christ and Muhammad, were all messengers of the same God.
Baha’ullah’s message, which he wrote in a number of key works known as the Tablets, not only won him a following but also the label of an Islamic heretic. He was exiled to Baghdad, to Constantinople (now Istanbul) and finally to Acre, in what is now Israel, where he died in prison in 1892.
His son, Abdul-Baha, succeeded him and helped spread the Bahai faith around the world. Today, there are more than 5 million adherents worldwide, including 165,000 in the United States, according to Bahai statistics. The Bahai do not have clergy, although members elect administrators at the local, national and global levels.
Bahais have faced persecution since the faith’s founding days, especially in Iran, where its followers are considered apostates. As many as 50,000 Bahais have left Iran in the last 50 years, scholars say. Conditions reached a low point during the years following the Islamic Revolution of 1979, when, they say, as many as 200 Bahai were executed or disappeared.
For Iraj Kamalabadi of Rancho Cucamonga, the record of persecution against Iranian Bahais is part of his family’s history, with both his father and, lately, his sister having been imprisoned.
Kamalabadi, 51, was born in Iran and came to the U.S. in 1977. In 1983, his father was arrested, evidently because of his faith. He was imprisoned and tortured, Kamalabadi said. When his father was eventually released, he suffered a series of strokes and died not long afterward.
“When I think of my father and the tortures he had gone through, and I imagine the faces of those who tortured him, I forgive them,” Kamalabadi said. “You focus on the positive. You don’t want to become the same people as these enemies.”
The situation for Iranian Bahais has worsened in the four years since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. United Nations officials have said the Ahmadinejad government has circulated documents ordering the police and the Revolutionary Guard to collect information on Bahai followers.
The Iranian government insists that it does not harass Bahais and that it only investigates those who have connections to Iranian rivals abroad. The seven leaders who were arrested last year were charged with “espionage for Israel, insulting religious sanctities and propaganda against the Islamic Republic,” according to Iranian news reports.
Bahai leaders said the imprisoned leaders may have been in contact with people in Haifa, Israel, because the faith’s headquarters is located there.
Kamalabadi’s sister, Fariba, was arrested at her home last spring and has spent more than a year in jail. At one point, she shared a cell with Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi, who has petitioned for the release of the Bahai since her release in May.
Fariba Kamalabadi was kept in solitary confinement for four months with only a thin blanket for a covering, her brother said. She contracted pneumonia and has had difficulty recovering. When their mother visited Fariba in prison last month, “she did not even recognize her own daughter,” he said.
These days, Iraj Kamalabadi spends most of his free time searching the Internet for the latest word on his sister. The ordeal has frustrated him, but he said he tries to remain peaceful. The Bahai believe that suffering can help human beings advance spiritually.
“I have been praying more fervently,” he said, “and with more ardor.”