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. WildGorgh

    Well, another he said she said story . nothing to clarify the fact. I am sure must of these folks were guilty of committing act of treason in their home country. Question is why hand pick these few folks from 200000 Bahia's who live in Iran now. this article failed to mention , along with these folks there many Muslims who are be convected of the same crime. So gofigure

    August 31, 2010 at 5:20 pm |
  2. tjkenny

    Well.... there's the "sensitive" "merciful" ISLAM for you.

    No thanks.

    August 31, 2010 at 5:18 pm |
  3. Leesa

    A modern day Holocaust. This story is just a tip of the iceberg of what could be happening with many other countries worldwide as well.

    August 31, 2010 at 5:17 pm |
  4. tjkenny

    Well.... there's ISLAM for you.

    No thanks.

    August 31, 2010 at 5:17 pm |
    • Tewrobert

      This problem with islam can be narrowed down to the Iranian government,

      They have NO education, they are living in the stone age ... I would sure like to see amajihahindildo taken out of power and put in prison like he has had so many before him, But they wont do it.......heck NO......
      I dont want to see him dead, Just in a little cubicle.....He can sing 99 virgins on the wall for the rest of his life..

      August 31, 2010 at 5:53 pm |
  5. Jeff

    I'm a Baha'i. My parents converted to the Baha'i Faith before my brother and I were born. My mom grew up Catholic and my father protestant. when my mom got out of the army and began practicing as a nurse, one of her co-workers was a Baha'i and my mom and this woman became very close friends. My mom was curious about her religion and started asking questions, which led to this woman lending my mom books and holy writings about the Baha'i Faith. My mom really liked what she was reading and my dad began to study these books as well. They both decided that the Baha'i Faith seemed to be a wonderful religion, and they declared themselves as Baha'is shortly thereafter. I'm telling this quick story because I can't imagine my parents being persecuted, tortured and put to death for becoming Baha'is. Its a wonderful religion and I would encourage anyone to read about the Baha'i Faith and learn more about it.
    It is very sad and unbelievable that Iranian government is still persecuting and imprisoning Baha's in 2010. Baha'is are some of the most peaceful, understanding, wonderful people you will ever meet. If this kind of civil rights abuse continues much longer, it is time for the UN to step in and help these people out. The last thing I want is another Iraq or Afghanistan, but you think the international community could do something to stop blatant persecution of innocent, law abiding citizens.

    August 31, 2010 at 5:17 pm |
  6. Veritas

    Der is no Jezzuz! 877 279 1239

    August 31, 2010 at 5:16 pm |
  7. Veritas

    There is no such thing as Jesus you fools! (877) 279-1239

    August 31, 2010 at 5:15 pm |
  8. Yasha the dog

    The timing of this story is all wrong – sorry, CNN. The media and politicians have been bombarding us for weeks about what a peaceful religion Islam is, how we should be tolerant of their beliefs and people should not think negative thoughts about Islam. Now here is a story, of how Christians in an Islamic country are treated and how are we supposed to react. Of course, what the Islamic government in Iran is doing is wrong, but it must be for the better good right? After all, Islam is a peaceful religion, even if it is run by evil dictators, right?

    August 31, 2010 at 5:15 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Yasha: I think the important thing to remember is that any totalitarian govt will create the same situation whether the predominant religion is islam, christianity, hinduism or otherwise.

      August 31, 2010 at 10:29 pm |
  9. Ken

    I am glad I have grown up here in America. But if we are not careful, our country will fall into the same paranoia. I already see our government becoming more afraid of it's citizens as we increasing disagree with the way we are being turned into a socialist nation. Disagree with the majority and you get quite jumped on here. It's nowhere near as bad as the middle east but stuff that happens very slowly over generations often gets missed. Be aware or lose everything.

    August 31, 2010 at 5:13 pm |
    • MrsFizzy

      Yes...paranoia. Oh and you think this is socialism??

      August 31, 2010 at 8:45 pm |
    • Frogist

      LOL! Yes, apparently he does think this is socialism. Oh Ken, go read some history. The arrogance of some people...

      August 31, 2010 at 10:21 pm |
  10. cc

    Religion is a choice.

    August 31, 2010 at 5:11 pm |
    • Sahar

      Absolutely. Reilgion IS a choice. Say that in Iran and you will be tortured/killed for being an "infidel."

      August 31, 2010 at 5:15 pm |
  11. Sahar

    I am a Persian Jew who grew up in Iran. I'm finally lucky enough to be an American citizen. It is so depressing to see how Bahai's are treated in Iran. Muslim people need to bury their heads in shame for how they treat their non-muslim neighbors, especially the poor Bahai's. Why is it that so many of us were killed and tortoured and no one said a word. Because they tmeselves weren't Bahai's and because they lack a conscience. They are always pretending to be this tolerant religion but in reality they spread nothing but HATE. Nowadays Baha'is are banned even from going to high school. They are killed left and right and their families are forced by the gov't to even pay for the bullet. G-d bless all the Baha'is in Iran. They are the most peaceful and tolerant and decent people ever. I am sorry to hear about all that you have been through.

    August 31, 2010 at 5:11 pm |
    • shilpy

      good post. the most influential leaders spread lies about islam. eg pres george bush said that islam is a peaceful religion. well, the proof is in pudding, ok. how come suadis, the most islamist county there is, produces terrorists and so much hate against non-muslims thr' mosques? same for iran. as joan river would say, can we talk? islam is bad enough to be discarded totally.

      August 31, 2010 at 5:43 pm |
  12. Cletus

    Islam: the religion of tolerance. Keep letting them into America and one day soon it will be Christians being imprisoned and tortured.

    August 31, 2010 at 5:10 pm |
  13. NEI

    I absolutely agree with Pam and Amanda. Minoo Vosough is an incredibly strong woman. Im not going to sit here and judge her because of her beliefs. Some of you are really overseeing the point of this story. talking about her going to hell and what not. NOONE SHOULD BE TREATED THIS WAY BECAUSE OF THERE RELIGION!!!

    August 31, 2010 at 5:09 pm |
  14. Askgees

    Religion is a farce and needs to be banned across the globe. Anyone who believes in this BS is a lose canon. Kill them now or pay the consequences later.

    Only man could invent a make believe character then MURDER in their name. MANKIND does not deserve to continue living.

    August 31, 2010 at 5:07 pm |
  15. Emilio Dumphuque

    Get it through your heads, Americans. When you travel abroad your "rights" don't go with you. You don't understand many cultures on Earth, but that doesn't make them wrong, only different. That's part of the reason they're exotic. That's the reason you go there. But DON'T expect them to treat you well or to give you "your rights". Over there, you're playing by their rules. Accept it or don't go!!

    August 31, 2010 at 5:06 pm |
  16. wyominguy

    This is a Perfect example of what you get when a country is run by a secular government. Laws we have had in the US that have saved our country time and again are religious freedom and separation of church and state.

    August 31, 2010 at 5:04 pm |
  17. Nick


    August 31, 2010 at 5:03 pm |
    • vanessa

      Read the Q'uran. I dare you. Then come back and cry about who is being "intolerant."

      August 31, 2010 at 8:10 pm |
    • MrsFizzy

      And then you have people on the other side complaining that CNN is trying to promote Islam because they are too positive about it!!

      August 31, 2010 at 8:42 pm |
  18. Jimi

    Compare: Bahá'í Faith, Islam, Christianity, Judaism


    August 31, 2010 at 5:02 pm |
  19. EJS

    It is a crazy religion just like Scientology and Mormonism.

    August 31, 2010 at 5:02 pm |
    • Jackie

      That is absolutely incorrect. Please do research about The Bahá'í Faith before you make such radical claims.

      August 31, 2010 at 7:07 pm |
  20. Askgees

    Religion is a farce and needs to be banned across the globe. Anyone who believes in this BS is a lose canon. Kill them now or pay the consequences later.

    There is no God there is just money and drugs. Pick one…..

    August 31, 2010 at 5:01 pm |
    • vanessa

      Ooh goody! The world has been missing it's Stalin!

      August 31, 2010 at 8:09 pm |
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About this blog

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.