The boy’s letter to the Iranian court last February was less than 500 words long and nearly two centuries old. Writing on behalf of his mother, 12 year-old Farid Kashani sent a letter to Judge Ghanbari in Gorgan, a city of around 300,000 located 250 miles northeast of Tehran, the capital of Iran.
His mother, Parisa, had been tried and convicted of illegal assembly for the purpose of teaching the Baha’i Faith, spreading teachings against the Islamic government and collaborating with the enemy. She and a group of other convicted members of the Baha’i Faith, the largest non-Muslim religious minority in Iran, had all been arrested at the same time and were now awaiting sentence because, in essence, they belong to the wrong religion. Anticipating a long prison term for his mother, Farid’s letter to the court pointed out that his father, Kamal, has already been imprisoned twice (also because of his religion) and now his mother awaits the same punishment.
In a larger sense, the son’s plea for justice dates back to the very beginning of the Baha’i Faith in mid-19th century Persia (modern-day Iran) when its followers were first persecuted as apostates for their belief in a religion revealed after the Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam and designated in the Qur’an as “the Seal of the Prophets.”
The judge allowed the boy to read his letter out loud in court which begins in the effusively respectful Islamic fashion, “In the name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful, Salaam.” The 12-year old then highlights the lessons he has learned so far in his young life: “I must always be truthful, always be kind to everyone, always be compassionate to all – even to people who wrong me or wish me ill. I must not wrongly accuse anyone of wrongdoing, I should not backbite or gossip.”
He then recounts how his family’s nightmare first began. When he was only 10 years old, the police had come to the family’s home and arrested his father for his religious activity, since unlike the Christian or Jewish traditions, the Baha’i Faith isn’t recognized by the Islamic government. His father was sentenced to 5 years in prison and all during this time his mother had to raise him and his 3 older brothers by herself. “Because of this,” he writes, “I think about lots of things these days.”
Mature beyond his years, the boy simply asks, “What does justice mean? Does it mean that people who only wish for, and work tirelessly for, the betterment of their country, and only aim to be kind to others and help them, should be jailed?”
Taking a chance that his words might offend the court or further prejudice his mother’s pending sentence, Farid abandons all caution and boldly states, “I think that when a person is imprisoned or pressured because of their religion or race, or false accusations, or by force, justice is being crumpled up and thrown away like a worthless piece of paper.”
“I accept that not everyone thinks the same way about things,” he goes on, “but after all we are all members of the human race. ‘We are the fruits of one tree,’” he recites from the Baha’i scripture, “‘and the leaves of one branch.’”
“Truthfulness is the foundation of all human virtues,” he adds, again drawing from his religious upbringing. “Are these teachings wrong? Are these teachings contrary to the beliefs of the Islamic Republic of Iran? Do they undermine or endanger the order and security of this country? More importantly, is it just the way of life in our country, to be persecuted because of our belief or religion? Why? What for? What sin have we committed?”
His daring letter ends with a frank but challenging admission, “I’m not saying these things because of my mother, but instead for all people that have been unfairly and baselessly jailed because of their belief and religion.”
Charges of apostasy and blasphemy are commonplace in Iran and frequently used for purposes of religious-identity politics under the guise of religious sanctity. When the Islamic government punishes those whose beliefs are not popular, then such charges only promote extremism and aggravate prejudice.
Out on the exorbitant bail of 150 million toman (roughly $50,000 US or enough money to buy a single-family dwelling in Iran), Parisa Kashani has yet to be formally sentenced. Nonetheless, her son’s letter in her defense has implications for the kind of legal system that convicted her and the other Baha’is from Gorgon.
The Baha’is of Iran seek due process and justice but so far have found only fraud and fanaticism. Iran’s treatment of religious minorities is the open wound that won’t heal. As quickly as it scabs over, some fresh outrage picks at the issue again until it bleeds anew.