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Baha'i woman recalls imprisonment in Iran
August 31st, 2010
11:10 AM ET

Baha'i woman recalls imprisonment in Iran

Minoo Vosough can still hear the guards' boots marching down the cold hallways of Iran's Gohardasht prison. The screams of other inmates burn her ears.

She can feel the thud of a fist coming down on her head. And the world going black as she was blindfolded and shoved in a courtroom to hear her fate.

She was arrested in Tehran more than 25 years ago - beaten, interrogated and thrown into solitary confinement. Once a week, she was taken out for a shower. She could tell if it was bright or overcast only by the small window high up in her cell. She cherished the chirping of birds outside.

All she had was a blanket, a spoon and a broken fork.

The Iranian regime accused Vosough of espionage, though she was never charged or afforded legal representation. Her crime in the Islamic republic, she says, was - and still is - her faith.

She is a Baha'i.

She has not spoken publicly about her terrifying experience in an Iranian jail. Until now.

This month, the spotlight again fell on Iran's 300,000-strong Baha'i community as seven national leaders were sentenced to 20 years each in prison for espionage, propaganda against the Islamic republic and the establishment of an illegal administration.


Seven Baha'i  leaders are  imprisoned in Iran's Gohardasht prison.

The Baha'i International Community says the charges are trumped up in an effort to stifle the religion, the largest minority faith in Iran. The sentences were condemned by human rights groups and by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who sternly reminded Iran that "freedom of religion is the birthright of people of all faiths and beliefs in all places."

Iran denies mistreatment of Baha'is and says followers of  the faith are free to live in Iran. But it says  it considers activities against the Islamic state illegal and thus views the seven Baha'is accused of spying for  Israel as criminals.

Vosough, a petite, soft-spoken realtor in Atlanta, Georgia, has been following the story of the Yaran, as the seven Baha'i leaders are known. One, Saeid Rezaie, is a classmate from her days at Pahlavi University, now called Shiraz University.

Vosough has tried to keep her own heartbreaking memories locked in the crevices of her mind. But seeing Rezaie's gentle face, reading about the plight of the Yaran, everything came rushing back.

"I want the whole world to know what is happening in Iran," she said.

"What was my crime? What is their crime? We simply believe in our faith. Why don't we have that right?"

Stamped an infidel

Vosough was born in 1956 into an Iran ruled by the shah. Her religion was then just over a century old, founded by two prophets: the Bab (the gate) and Baha'ullah (the glory of God).

Baha'is consider Baha'ullah the most recent in a line of God's messengers that includes Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Krishna, Zoroaster, Christ and Mohammed.

She learned from her parents and from her days at a Baha'i school about the key principle of her religion: oneness of humankind.

Baha'is had never been accepted in Iran but their station in life plunged with the arrival of the Islamic revolution in 1979.


Vosough, right, had to rent a cap and gown after Iranian authorities denied her a college diploma and a place in commencement ceremonies.

A young college student then, Vosough was forced to rent a graduation cap and gown to celebrate with her Baha'i friends after she was denied an official diploma and consequently, she was unable to land a job. These days, Baha'is are barred from enrolling in universities. Or even having a gravestone.

Vosough's father-in-law was buried with just a paper marker bearing his name and the number of the cemetery plot, she says, staring at an old color photograph of the grave.
Four gladioli lie before the crude marker. Otherwise it's hard to tell that a father lies there.

The Tehran government seemed to be looking away for a while, but repression for all religious minorities in Iran has worsened since the presidential elections of 2005 and in particular after the disputed polling last year, according to a 2010 report compiled by the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

"A consistent stream of virulent and inflammatory statements by political and religious leaders and an increase in harassment and imprisonment of, and physical attacks against, these groups has led to a renewal of the kind of oppression seen in the years immediately following the Iranian revolution," the report says.

Baha'i blood is "mobah," which means members of the Baha'i faith can be killed with impunity, the report says. Iranian authorities view Baha'is as "heretics" who may face repression on the grounds of apostasy.

Since 1979, the Iranian government has executed more than 200 Baha'is and more than 10,000 have been dismissed from government and university jobs, the commission's report says. Baha'is may not establish places of worship, schools, or any independent religious associations in Iran. In addition, Baha'is are barred from the military and denied government jobs.

"This is a community that has really felt the jackboot of the Iranian government," says Leonard Leo, chairman of the commission.

Vosough says the Iranian government is determined to sow prejudice against the Baha'is. Even Muslims who associate with Baha'is are often harassed by authorities, she says.

On public forms, people are asked to mark their religion: Muslim. Christian. Zoroastrian. Jewish.

There is no box for the Baha'is.

"So you are stamped an infidel," says Vosough. "You have no rights."

Making a 13-day escape

She had been married two months in 1984 when she was arrested after a family gathering. The government suspected her of "illegal activity."

Officials stopped her car and demanded documents she didn't have. There were no Miranda Rights. No lawyer. She was wrestled away to Tehran's notorious Evin prison, her family left to scour the route she took.

She was only 27 - and frightened.

Vosough at her engagement party in Tehran.

"I didn't know what was happening," she says. "In my heart, I knew I was there because I was a Baha'i."

In jail, she reflected on her faith. That gave her strength. She recited prayers and tried to count days. That kept her lucid.

She was taken to Gohardasht prison on the outskirts of Tehran and kept in a cell by herself. Later, when she was returned to Evin for her trial, she was placed in a room with 60 other women. A Baha'i woman was nursing her six-month-old baby. Vosough gave the woman her share of prison milk. The mother needed strength.

"Why should a baby be in prison?" she asks. "For what crime? Was that baby also a spy for Israel?"

After three months, Vosough was released. But she could not escape prison. She could no longer walk the streets without fear. And when she became pregnant, a panic set in.

"I wasn't going to let my child ever be in a prison like that," she says.

Or t be unable to go to school, get a job. Or do anything freely.

On a summer day in 1985, Vosough said goodbye to Iran. She took with her only a small bag with two changes of clothing for an escape that took 13 days. She and her husband traveled by the darkness of night, on horseback, on foot, over the mountains into neighboring Turkey.

The next year, with the help of the United Nations refugee agency, Vosough began a new life in the United States. She has no Iranian passport, required of all returning Iranians. Nor does she own any documentation of the life she left behind.

In her native Iran, she is more of a nobody than before.

At 53, Vosough does not know if she will ever again touch Iranian soil. Perhaps, she fears, she has already embraced her 86-year-old mother for the last time.

But in America, she says, she can practice her faith freely.

"You don't know freedom until it has been taken away from you," she says, sitting under a framed drawing of Baha'ullah¹s son Abdu¹l-Baha in her suburban home.

"It was taken away from me."

Ensuring survival

If Vosough could talk to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, she would tell him one thing: "This is not what Islam promotes."

The seven Baha'i leaders imprisoned now were the pillars of their communities, Vosough says. They are even more important because the Baha'is do not follow clergy. Instead communities plan their own meetings and services.

In Iran, the seven were working to ensure the survival of their way of life in a country that does not recognize them.

"I think I survived everything pretty good," she says, a moment of acute sadness interrupting the smile that is often splashed across her face.

But she worries that her 300,000 Baha'i brothers and sisters in Iran may not.

She has felt emboldened to write to her congressmen, to push them to apply pressure on Iran.

If the world forgets, she fears, what will become of her people?

- Moni Basu

Filed under: Baha'i • Iran • Journeys

soundoff (456 Responses)
  1. et

    Nothing can be more contrary to religion and the clergy than reason and common sense. (Voltaire)

    August 31, 2010 at 4:17 pm |
    • AK

      Yes, and Voltaire's philosophizing was a direct precursor to the French Revolution, a historical non-secular benchmark of reason and common sense.

      sssSSSSHHHOOOOMMP! went Madame Guillotine.....in agreement.

      August 31, 2010 at 4:42 pm |
  2. GMartin

    This happens to Jehovah's Witness all the time in MANY countries. China, almost the ENTIRE middle east, Korea's, Russia et al.

    In fact, since world war two

    August 31, 2010 at 4:17 pm |
    • David Johnson

      Alright, I admit, I did turn the sprinklers on them one time. But I had,had a six pack...

      September 1, 2010 at 12:21 pm |
  3. Greg G

    Why is this front page, center block news??
    People are oppressed for their religious views all the time, everywhere, throughout history.
    Slow news day or what?

    August 31, 2010 at 4:16 pm |
  4. CSnord

    Nice, peaceful, tolerant Islam. Why is it that Islam is supposed to represent peace and tolerance, but that this kind of repression and totalitarianism is the norm in every single Islamic country?

    August 31, 2010 at 4:16 pm |
    • Salvatore

      A country who's government is run by a religion will always be that way... no matter what faith it is. Sad :(. Even more sad for us Atheists who think we only have one go at it. Much easier to be "mean" when you think that the best is yet to come.

      August 31, 2010 at 4:37 pm |
    • Justice

      Yup, tell 'em about it! You recall the phrase "Wolves in sheep clothing"...look @ 'em in The Philippines, Indonesia, and other countries.

      August 31, 2010 at 4:51 pm |
    • farmboy1950

      Be grateful we have a separation of church and state in our government. Religious theocracys are bad news. Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu – whatever. Just reading some of the hateful, arrogant and intolerant posts regarding this article is proof enough. There are precious few voices of reason. Can you imagine if some of these posters were in a positon of power?

      August 31, 2010 at 5:34 pm |
    • Kraznodar

      Wrong! Turkey is a Muslim nation and is very tolerant. United Arab Emirates is pretty tolerant. The Vatican and Christians through out Africa and South America routinely engage in Persecution of other flavors of Christianity or other religions. Try shutting the hell up until you learn about the subject so you don't look like such a moron.

      August 31, 2010 at 5:36 pm |
    • farmboy1950

      Hey Krasnodar – Ever hear of the Armenians? Try opening a mosque or fundamentalist church in Vatican City. You're an idiot.

      August 31, 2010 at 6:36 pm |
  5. Jcthinker

    I laud her endurance and strength of faith. But what is the point of this article ? I'm glad there is a survivor to tell a sad and yet heroic tale. But are we supposed to be shocked or bewildered by the inhumanity of Iran?

    August 31, 2010 at 4:14 pm |
    • Farzad

      I think the whole point of her story is that it must be told rather then loss it to the silence of time. Would you rather her experience be forgotten, swept under the rug, and hidden from the light of day? No the responsibility with being an adult means you must face this ugliness, acknowledge it, and find ways (other then force as this should be the last resort) to resolve it.

      August 31, 2010 at 5:16 pm |
    • SMM

      Many of the readers of this article seem to be looking for a politically-motivated angle or some sort of hidden agenda. But its possible that Minoo is just telling her story in hopes that it will draw attention to the CURRENT plight of the Baha'is in Iran. This is something that every human should care about -- the plight of fellow human beings who are being persecuted. To me, that is the point of the article.

      August 31, 2010 at 10:19 pm |
    • TammyB

      @ SMM....Very well said, and I think you are absolutely right regarding the story.

      September 1, 2010 at 3:18 pm |
  6. Salvatore

    Sigh... Jrad, If religion, as with any other freedom, were banned it would be a bad thing. Not because it's religion but because it's a freedom. The best scenario is for people to out-grow the need for religion naturally. While it is obvious that not alll violence stems from religion, you say "...if the concept of religion was never concieved..." This is exactly why religion is faulty. It was concieved... by man... who has great capacity for evil. If religion were given to us by an actual god there would be no ability to use it for bad because it would be perfectly understood. Shouldn't you expect that from a god?

    August 31, 2010 at 4:13 pm |
  7. et

    Freethinkers are those who are willing to use their minds without prejudice and without fearing to understand things that clash with their own cistoms, privileges, or beliefs. This state of mind is not common. but it is essential for right thinking; where it is absent, discussion is apt to become worse than useless. (Leo Tolstoy, 10/20/1828, Russian writer/Phililospher & social activist)

    August 31, 2010 at 4:12 pm |
  8. larry wi

    This story is in part why so many of us are turned off by religeon> All religeous beliefe's seem to do is to create hate and discontent amongst the people.If you have differant religeous beliefs than the next guy you are a no good SOB.People of differant faith argue and kill each other over religeon.

    August 31, 2010 at 4:12 pm |
    • Kraznodar

      Religion is just the excuse. People like killing and war. If not religion then it will be politics or skin color or what not. Don't blame the faith. Some people still watch pro-wrestling.

      August 31, 2010 at 5:30 pm |
  9. JOHN CRAVER

    Sounds like typical rubbish jew propaganda, inciting hatred against yet another muslim country. You want to fight for Jew Israel go ahead.

    August 31, 2010 at 4:11 pm |
  10. LizardMom

    "But in America, she says, she can practice her faith freely."

    August 31, 2010 at 4:09 pm |
    • AK

      C'mon Mom...don't you know that the New World Order, presided over by the Pope, the Jooz, the Bilderbergers, the Club o'Rome, and the Trilateral Commission all either paid her to say that, or programmed her chip implant?

      Just ask John Craver in the post right below us. He'll tell you as soon as he finishes that case of PBR and adjusts his tinfoil hat.

      August 31, 2010 at 4:35 pm |
  11. Mother Carmody

    She deserved that sentence for not believing in THE ONE TRUE CHRISTIAN GOD. Fortunately, she will burn in the afterlife.

    August 31, 2010 at 4:08 pm |
    • JT

      Here! Here! It doesn't matter if she were to be the most selfless, visit the sick every day and be the best person in the world but if she is not a True Christian® she will rot and burn in the unquenchable flames. Isn't baby Jesus just fantastic! Glory!

      August 31, 2010 at 4:17 pm |
    • AK

      Umm..JT...develop the ability to discern when a web troll casts his foul-smelling net to snare larvae like yourself.

      August 31, 2010 at 4:30 pm |
    • Lord Giggles

      You're probably a Muslim in disguise trying to bash on Christianity. sad.

      August 31, 2010 at 4:48 pm |
    • Laura

      I can't believe you so-called Christians. Jesus Christ taught LOVE and He said not to judge the soul of others. Where will you end up?

      August 31, 2010 at 4:53 pm |
    • JennyTX

      The only people who know what happens in the afterlife are dead people. No living person has any evidence of what happens in the afterlife.

      August 31, 2010 at 4:59 pm |
    • Linda N

      "Mother Carmody
      She deserved that sentence for not believing in THE ONE TRUE CHRISTIAN GOD. Fortunately, she will burn in the afterlife."

      If you really believe that than you are not a true Christian. Then again, like someone else said, maybe you are a troll. If you are Muslim saying such things, than again, you are not a true Muslim.

      The suffering of all those persecuted for their religion, past or present, should give all of us pause to work for true peace and freedom.

      August 31, 2010 at 11:49 pm |
    • TammyB

      Hopefully, your God is the one true god. If not, it will be you who will be burning in the afterlife. I'm betting on Minoo Visough, however, who seems to embody more "christianlike" values than you, such as tolerance, peace, non-judgement (that's God's job, remember), love and respect.

      September 1, 2010 at 3:13 pm |
  12. ThinkAloud9

    Organized religion is largely superstition, hypocrisy and BS. However, people have the right to be superstitioius, hypocritical and full of BS, as long as they're not pushing their delusions upon others or printing it on their currency...oops, they do that here in the U.S., don't they?

    August 31, 2010 at 4:06 pm |
  13. AK

    Minoo, you are a radiantly beautiful woman and soul. whose smile, faith, and quiet grace would light up a room.

    August 31, 2010 at 4:05 pm |
  14. Bozole Clun

    Note to all so-called Christians out there: Matthew 7:1-5.

    August 31, 2010 at 4:05 pm |
    • Sad

      Thank you for pointing that out. None of us should judge. I love America because we all have the freedom to choose what we believe (at least for now). I'm a Christian and this story and so many of these hate-filled posts are just heartbreaking.

      August 31, 2010 at 6:42 pm |
  15. Terence

    This is an article everyone in this country should read. The right for everyone to practice their religion is a fundamental right: even those who practice Islam.
    I think this woman puts it succinctly, "You don't appreciate your freedom until it's taken away from you."

    August 31, 2010 at 4:04 pm |
    • Bozole Clun

      I'd add, "We don't appreciate our freedoms until we protect that freedom in those with whom we disagree."

      August 31, 2010 at 4:06 pm |
  16. Salvatore

    chris makes the comment "...I think the problem with that is Islam is not just a religion but a way of life... a law... a political structure". First, All religions, having thier way, would operate like this. Second, you are saying that other faith's religion is not supposed to be a way of life? A law? Read the bibel or the torah some time. It sounds to me that your only problem with Islam is that they actually practice what they preach. I am an Atheist and I think religion is silly... religious institutions are dangerous and that religious people are niave. " Do not attempt to pull the speck from your neighbor's eye when there is a plank in your own... First pull the plank from your own eye, then..." have a beer and mind your own business... 🙂

    August 31, 2010 at 4:03 pm |
    • Salvatore

      Oops... My opinion, such that it is, still does not give me the right to persecute others. Namaste.

      August 31, 2010 at 4:20 pm |
      • vanessa

        According to the Q'uran, it is not only your right but your solemn duty to kill those who stand in opposition to Islam. Muhammed was a thug, a thief, and had anger management problems, along with a massive ego. Simply not being a polytheist wasn't good enough for him. No– he persecuted even those who followed the same God, but refused to bloodlust of Islam. He was not a continuance of God's word– he was the greatest blasphemer against it. I do not say this from a Christian background– I say it from having read both the Christian and Muslim texts. Muhammed's only "proof" of God's allegiance to him was that he was able to slaughter a ton of innocent people. The religion is founded on hate and intolerance.

        August 31, 2010 at 7:53 pm |
        • David Johnson

          @vanessa

          It is not good for you to hold your emotions in like that. Tell us how you really feel! LOL

          September 1, 2010 at 12:24 pm |
  17. et

    The world is so exquisite, with so much love & moral deph,but there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there is little evidence. Far better, it seems to me, in our vonerability,is to look death in the eye & to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides. (Carl Sagan)

    August 31, 2010 at 4:03 pm |
    • ThinkAloud9

      Amen! None of us has all of the answers, but any of us who is rational knows that religion is ridiculously unproveable.

      August 31, 2010 at 4:13 pm |
  18. fastball

    Seriously, why is this the headliner on CNN News??
    It's a human interest story, yes....but the headliner??
    Or just another subliminal reminder to the American public that you're in a war, and that this kind of alleged behavior is what we're fighting??
    C'mon, this kind of propaganda went out in the 1950's, guys.

    August 31, 2010 at 4:02 pm |
    • SMM

      This is not 'alleged' behaviour......it is all too real. I personally know dozens of other men and women who were imprisoned in Iran during this time, and who had to escape in much the same way. Its unfortunate that there are other political issues at hand that prevent people from caring that Iran denies human rights to a significant portion of its population.

      August 31, 2010 at 10:11 pm |
  19. fromafar

    ReasonRules is exactly right. Read _Beyond Power_ by Marilyn French for a real eye opener regarding history, politics, religion, and women.

    August 31, 2010 at 4:01 pm |
    • RoughingIt

      Right, read something from a woman that claims, "all men are rapists and that's all they are." The only eye-opening that will occur is you'll realize they'll let even mentally disturbed people publish a book.

      August 31, 2010 at 5:52 pm |
  20. ANDROLOMA

    Religion of peace? There is no such thing.

    August 31, 2010 at 3:59 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.