26 Oct 2010
“It was not long after Ayatollah Khomeini came to power that the real trouble started.
My husband was arrested, tortured and killed and then they arrested me too,” Mehrangiz Moayyad says.
The Iranian woman is in her council home in a quiet Aberdeen estate recalling traumatic events in her homeland from nearly 30 years ago and explaining how she and her family were persecuted for their religious beliefs.
Mrs Moayyad is a follower of the Baha’i faith, a religion dating from 1844, with five million followers in 235 countries. There are an estimated 300,000 followers in Iran and around 6000 in the UK. The central idea of the faith is one of unity and followers believe people should work together for the common benefit of humanity.
“Its founder, Baha’u’llah, was the latest in a line of divinely inspired prophets that included Moses and Jesus. Baha’u’llah said he was a prophet of God so in Iran, Baha’is are viewed as heretics because Mohammed, who founded Islam, declared himself to be the last and final prophet of God centuries earlier,” Mrs Moayyad explains.
Baha’is have always faced discrimination in Iran but the situation deteriorated following the ascension to power in 1979 of Khomeini, the hard-line Shiite Muslim and Iranian political leader.
In 1982, Mrs Moayyad’s husband, Menouchehr, a prominent banker, was arrested by the police and ordered to publicly renounce his faith. Although the alternative was torture and possible death, Menouchehr refused to embrace Islam as instructed.
“He was jailed and I visited him in prison every week. They eventually killed him. I remember a sympathetic guard let me see his body afterwards. It was horrific. His fingers had been removed and there was a hole through his nose and he had been shot in the stomach. His face was contorted with the pain,” she says.
In 1985, Mrs Moayyad herself was detained and tortured in Tehran’s Ghasr Prison for five months, but she too refused to renounce the Baha’i faith and was then sentenced to death by hanging by a religious court.
“Tradition has it that a woman must put the noose around her own neck but I’d been so maltreated in prison I was seriously ill and unable to stand. They sent me to a hospital for blood transfusions and vitamin treatment so I could be executed. I managed to escape and went into hiding before getting out of the country. I travelled to the UK via Pakistan and claimed political asylum in 1986,” Mrs Moayyad says.
She spoke to The Herald after Iran recently sentenced seven Baha’i leaders to 20 years in prison in a move that provoked outrage around the world.
The seven – Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeid Rezaie, Mahvash Sabet, Behrouz Tavakkoli, and Vahid Tizfahm – were all senior members of Iran’s 300,000-strong Baha’i community. They were accused of propaganda activities against the Islamic order and the establishment of an illegal administration. All the charges were denied.
Foreign Secretary William Hague and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were among world leaders who condemned the verdict, which Amnesty International described as “a sad and damning manifestation of the deeply rooted discrimination against Baha’is by the Iranian authorities”.
Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa deputy director, says: “These Baha’i leaders, some of whom are elderly, are prisoners of conscience jailed on account of their beliefs or peaceful activities on behalf of the persecuted Baha’i minority. They were held for months without charge before being subjected to a parody of a trial.”
Scotland’s Baha’i community has embarked on a series of protests to raise awareness of the problems facing their religion in Iran and held a vigil outside Glasgow’s St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art in September. They also put a motion to the Scottish Parliament, supported by religious leaders. Scotland’s Catholic leader, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, said: “I regard what has happened as being a most appalling transgression of justice and a gross violation of the human right of freedom of belief.”
UN General Secretary, Ban Ki-moon, also expressed strong concern over Iran’s persecution of Iranian Baha’is in a new report.
The Iranian authorities deny anyone is persecuted for their religious beliefs and claim those in prison have been tried fairly.
Repression for all religious minorities in Iran has worsened since the presidential elections of 2005 and in particular after the disputed election last year.
It would appear that international pressure on Iran has had some impact, as prison sentences for the seven Baha’is leaders have reportedly been reduced from 20 to 10 years, according to their lawyers.