Bahais Mourn Iranian Jailed for His Faith

Maye Aghazadeh helps Ananda Ewing-Boyd light a candle honoring Dhabihu'llah Mahrami, who died in Iran. Bahai leaders have declared him a martyr.
Maye Aghazadeh helps Ananda Ewing-Boyd light a candle honoring Dhabihu'llah Mahrami, who died in Iran. Bahai leaders have declared him a martyr. (Photos By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
By Ray Rivera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 30, 2006

For 10 years, Dhabihu'llah Mahrami remained in an Iranian jail when a simple declaration would have freed him: "I am not a Bahai."

"That's all he had to say," Ali Afnan, an Iran native and Bahai follower, told about 60 members of the faith who gathered yesterday to remember Mahrami at a service held at the D.C. Baha'i Center on 16th Street NW.

Mahrami, a follower of the Bahai faith, Iran's largest non-Muslim minority religion, died of unknown causes in a prison in central Iran last month, prompting renewed concerns over the persecution that Bahais have faced in Iran since the religion was founded there 150 years ago.

A former Iranian civil servant, Mahrami, 59, was sentenced to death by an Islamic revolutionary court in 1996 for returning to Bahai after allegedly converting to Islam. Mahrami said that he had never left the Bahai faith and that sympathetic Muslim co-workers had said he converted to Islam so he wouldn't lose his government job. His sentence was later commuted to life in prison.

Members of the faith, which claims about 5 million followers worldwide, say he would have been free to return to his job, wife and four children if he had renounced Bahai (pronounced Bah-Hay).

Instead, he repeatedly refused.

"Do you think he didn't care about his children?" Afnan, a chemist who lives in Olney, asked the gathering. "Do you think he was above that? No. He did this for love, which makes the world go around."

Leaders of the religion, which is headquartered in Israel, have declared Mahrami a martyr, and his death has raised concerns about an upsurge in persecution against minority religions in Iran.

"Unfortunately, Mr. Mahrami's incarceration is not unique," Adam Erli, deputy spokesman for the U.S. State Department, said in a statement following Mahrami's Dec. 15 death. "Members of the country's religious minorities -- including Sunni Muslims, Sufis, Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians -- are frequently imprisoned, harassed, and intimidated based on their religious beliefs."

Bahai community members warn that the persecution may rise under the leadership of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who took office in August. A former hard-line Tehran mayor, Ahmadinejad has signaled a desire to return Iran to the conservative zeal that marked Ayatollah Khomeini's 1979 revolution.

The Iranian government has been silent on Mahrami's death, and calls to Iranian officials in the United States were not returned yesterday.

Since 1979, more than 200 Iranian Bahais have been killed and hundreds more imprisoned by the Iranian government, Bahai officials say. Many also have had their property confiscated and been deprived of jobs, pensions and education, followers say.

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