By Nika Khanjani
Nika Khanjani is a Baha’i living in Canada and the niece of Jamaloddin Khanjani, a prisoner of conscience in Iran.
Almost six years have passed with my uncle, Jamaloddin Khanjani, imprisoned in Iran. He was part of the Yaran, the seven “friends “who served the Baha’is, the largest religious minority in Iran, until they were arrested on May 14, 2008 My uncle and the Yaran were spiritual leaders and a source of support to a community persecuted and unrecognized as citizens of Iran.
When I was younger, I lived with my uncle and his wife in Iran. I witnessed the problemsfacing the Baha’i community, and I was also privy to my uncle and aunt’s daily interactions and the certain level of normalcy in quieter moments of their lives.
I had always had an insatiable curiosity about the history of the Baha’i community, and my uncle indulged even my most naïve questions, as we drank our tea and ate dried fruit and nuts after meals. To me, he was a connection with my father, as they both share beautiful voices and wry humor.
I was surrounded by dozens of cousins, aunts and uncles, who created a warm and joyful chaos, full of gallows humor, teasing and laughter. Whenever my uncle entered the room, the tone would shift as everyone, from the youngest to eldest, stood up to pay respects. He would then make a joke, and we would break into laughter again, continuing with our antics.
My uncle had an approachability and ease that I took for granted. Only when I accompanied him and my aunt to Baha’i gatherings did I begin to see how others saw him, and how he had to navigate the deference paid to him by the greater community.
One particular night I remember we attended a neighborhood gathering of Baha’is in Tehran. It was a rather sizeable gathering, and when we arrived, the entire room rose to its feet to greet my aunt and uncle. We sat down, the host came by with a tray of beverages—glasses of water and one glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice. She offered the juice to my uncle. He looked around the room and saw that everyone else had a glass of water. He smiled at the hostess and thanked her for the juice, but asked instead for a glass of water, the same as everyone else. It was a delicate moment, which I am quite certain was noted by everyone present, though no one spoke of it directly.
When I learned that my uncle had been arrested in 2008, I knew it was terrible injustice, and while he has a strong spirit, he is human and has the infirmities of age to deal with in prison as the eldest member of the Yaran.
Despite this suffering, my uncle Jamal is not a victim, nor are the other Yaran. They, like the others in the Baha’i community in Iran, are aware of the dangers of living their lives according to their convictions. They have not cowered or minced their words, even knowing full well that their fate would be changed if they simply denounced their faith and signed a few papers.
My uncle insists that the Baha’is, a non-violent, non-political and deeply philanthropic community, are doing nothing that should be hidden or apologized for. We, who live outside Iran, must speak up against this kind of injustice, which oppresses the Baha’i community of Iran daily.
In my uncle’s situation, the most difficult ordeal was his separation from my aunt, his wife, Ashraf, who passed away while he was in prison. Ashraf was my uncle’s love, his life companion, his dearest friend and his most steadfast support. Her decline in health was directly related to his imprisonment, and although she always believed that what he was doing was right, they had hoped that, in the twilight of their lives, they could spend time together, quietly serving the community and living out their days in the company of their grandchildren. When she died, he was not given even a moment to attend her funeral and pay his respects at her grave, to say goodbye. The pain this caused him is hard to comprehend. Our family has remained close and supportive, but my sense is that the fatigue of all these years of being the target of the regime’s offenses is taking its toll on him.
In phone calls and letters exchanged with my father, my uncle, despite his own condition, always asks after our health and wellbeing. He sent his love and support when he learned of my marriage and his prayers when he learned of my pregnancy, and that has been a profound honor and source of strength for me.
In the past several years, other family members have been incarcerated and had their businesses closed. They have been called in repeatedly for questioning by government officials and made to pay exorbitant and arbitrary fees. Some younger cousins have also been harassed at school, not so much by their peers but by teachers and administrators.
The list of grievances in the Baha’i community is long, although they continue to live by their faith. Theirs is a constant practice of love and patience, even as they strive to better themselves and serve humanity.
In their honor, I urge you to raise your voice in calling for the release of the Yaran and the human rights of all. Without this recognition of our shared humanity, any freedoms we enjoy will always be at the expense of others. Let us strive with all efforts to serve humankind. This is the cause for which my uncle, Jamaloddin Khanjani, and the Yaran have sacrificed their freedom.
The Farsi version of this article can be read here.