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Iranian Bahais, Fleeing Religious Persecution, Find a Refuge in Turkey

By Amberin Zaman
The Los Angeles Times
October 30, 2000

VAN, Turkey--When the prominent Iranian doctor was invited back home last year with promises that he would no longer be persecuted for his adherence to the Bahai faith, he resigned from a well-paid job in Saudi Arabia and flew to Iran.

"Within six months, I was in jail," said the frail-looking 65-year-old, who now has fled across the border to eastern Turkey, as he broke down in tears. "They fed me my own flesh."

The doctor, a longtime campaigner for Bahai rights, identified himself as Parvaz Mukhtari, but that is not his real name. Like many other Iranian Bahais seeking asylum in Turkey, he refuses to reveal his real name because he wants to protect loved ones back home.

The Bahais are part of a crush of refugees in this eastern Turkish city. Officials here say the refugees, most of them Kurds fleeing a 15-year separatist insurgency in the country's largely Kurdish southeast, have more than doubled the official population of 226,000. Besides Iranian Bahais, who normally are granted asylum because of the persecution they face, there are as many as 10,000 illegal Iranian immigrants here, officials estimate.

Necmettin Salaz, an advisor to Van's mayor, said the refugees have created "unbearable" pressure on city resources. Most of the refugees live in adobe huts with plastic sheeting for windows and no heating or toilets. Many men work illegally in construction; women in growing numbers are said to be turning to prostitution.

Officials at the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Van say the number of Iranian asylum-seekers, including Bahais, has steadily risen over the last three years. Nearly half of those granted refugee status last year were Bahais.

Like most of the other Bahai refugees, Mukhtari believed that conditions for Iran's largest religious minority would improve when the country's moderate president, Mohammad Khatami, was elected in May 1997 with promises of democratic reform.

But Mukhtari said he was arrested and put in solitary confinement in a jail in Isfahan, about 200 miles south of the Iranian capital, Tehran, after refusing to renounce his faith.

A ragged scar zigzags the length of Mukhtari's left calf from where he said his interrogators had carved out a piece of flesh.

"They grilled it in the form of a kebab and forced it down my throat," Mukhtari recalled, tugging fiercely at a set of turquoise worry beads as he spoke. "For them, it was a great joke."

Such treatment is part of what critics call a policy of repression against Bahais in Iran. Western diplomats say that continuing persecution of Bahais might be part of the broader power struggle in Iran between hard-liners and Khatami's reformers.

Just a year after Khatami was elected, Ruhollah Rowhani, a Bahai, was executed on charges of apostasy stemming from his alleged conversion of a Muslim woman to the Bahai faith, said Techeste Ahderom, a spokesman for the Bahai International Community in New York. At least 11 Bahais remain in jail for refusing to recant their faith. Four have been handed death sentences, Ahderom said.

The U.S. State Department's annual report on religious freedom for 1999 accused Iran of implementing policies against Bahais "geared to destroying them as a community" through prolonged imprisonment, confiscation and desecration of their holy sites and graves, and by denying them university education and government jobs.

Iranian authorities in September 1998 shut down a covert chain of Bahai "open universities" set up shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in response to the group's exclusion from high schools and universities. Last year, four Bahai faculty members arrested in the crackdown were sentenced to up to 10 years in prison on charges of having established "a secret organization" engaged in "attracting youth, teaching against Islam, and teaching against the regime of the Islamic Republic," the State Department report said.

Numbering about 350,000 in Iran and 5 million worldwide, the Bahais are considered apostates by Iran's clerical regime chiefly because of claims that their spiritual leader, a 19th-century Persian nobleman named Bahaullah, succeeded the prophet Muhammad as God's latest messenger.

More than 200 adherents of this largely pacifist community have been executed since the revolution. Thousands have fled the country.

In Turkey, however, the Bahais' aversion to politics and calls for equality between men and women have made them welcome. Leaders of this predominantly Muslim but officially secular nation continue to view Islamic radicalism as the No. 1 threat to the modern Turkish republic founded by Kemal Ataturk more than 70 years ago, and they accuse Iran's clerical rulers of seeking to export fundamentalism.

"Of all the Muslim countries in the world, Turkey is where we feel the greatest freedom," said Cuneyt Can, a physics professor at Ankara's Middle Eastern Technical University and a local community leader for Turkish Bahais.

For that reason, says Can, Bahais fleeing Iran are well received by local authorities, and Turkey is a favorite transit route for those seeking asylum in Western countries.

"The Turkish police, the people have been very kind to me," said a 54-year-old Bahai asylum seeker, who would identify herself only as Shaziya. She said her 40-year-old brother was shot dead by Iranian revolutionary guards in 1981.

"I still keep the shirt he was wearing," she said, producing a crumpled, blood-stained garment out of a plastic bag.

She said Iranian secret police still raid the family home and detain males for long periods. Last year, she said, her husband was jailed for refusing to convert to Islam and has yet to be released.

"I decided to come here to save my poor son," Shaziya said, pulling a teenager to her side. The pair made it to Van in February after a harrowing four-day trek through the snow-clad mountains separating Turkey from Iran. Like hundreds of Iranians who cross illegally into Turkey every year, they paid Kurdish smugglers about $600 each to get them across the heavily mined frontier. They are waiting to be resettled in Norway by the High Commissioner for Refugees.

As they await resettlement, community elders such as Mukhtari organize classes for Bahai youth to pass on the religion's teachings but also tutor them on such subjects as English and math. "Come what may," said Mukhtari, "we shall keep the spirit of our faith alive


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