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. LD

    OK – I have read 90% of the comments and think in general they prove that most people in thi s and most other countries generally do not get "freedom". I am American Born – American Raised and a Christian – through my upbring I have been exposed to Church of Christ (Southren version), Baptist, Methodist, Assmebly of God, Judism and Catholic. Each has its good and its bad. But in the end it all boils down to one common thing – FAITH. Everyone has FAITH in something and NO ONE should tell another what the FAITH should be. And NO ONE has the right to try and FORCE their FAITH on another. FREEDOM means being your own person without fear!!! What ever one believes in is fine by me just STOP trying to convience others that your way is the right or ONLY way.

    What these people are going through is HORRIBLE and should be stop. All reglions have been either been persecuted or have persected others for their beliefs since the dawn of time. Only we – people – can stop it. It takes EVERYONE of us standing up and standing strong that will ever get it to stop.

    So instead of whining, moaning, bitching, etc – STAND UP AND DO SOMETHING!!!!

    August 31, 2010 at 5:52 pm |
  2. Khan

    Iran is a retrgrade regime, everyone including the regime knows that. What most people commenting in the forums don't know that Muslims/Islam is not a monolithic entity. There are at least 50 major recognized denominations and hundreds if not thousands variations within those denominations. Of course Islamists want to unify everyone into their extreme fold, people who drink 3 cups of anti-muslim propaganda everyday and spewing their internet learned knowledge in these forums are just helping the Islamists cause by openly cursing the religion, its prophets and its god.
    Even people who would call them Muslims are persecuted regularly in Iran. A case in point is Sufi muslims, who at one time were perhaps the largest minority in Iran and Iraq but havebeen systematically anhilated from Iran and the entire middle east. Under threat from the Salafis and Shiites, the Sufis have either gone underground in these countries or migrated. For example there are about 80 million Sufi Muslims in India.

    August 31, 2010 at 5:51 pm |
  3. jcgal

    To Reply to this mess:
    "To those of you who keep on saying "when were moslems ever picked up in this country and simply thrown in prison for their religion" it did happen under the Bush Administration. It was the NSEERs program. Any individual from the set of muslim countries who did not come forward and register under this program (because their original country of origin was a high threat) was subject to criminal prosecution and even deportation (even though these people had played by all the rules and came here legally). There are hundreds of cases in the federal court of appeals were individuals were recklessly prosecuted because of their national origin and religion."

    I and my family are immigrants from that "Muslim block" of nations and NEVER ONCE has a US Gov't representative given us one moment of grief. Plus, I travel (fly) regularly with no problems. There are some stories out there, if not blatantly not true, are very over blown. Yours was just one of them.

    August 31, 2010 at 5:51 pm |
  4. vince

    First off I think this is a good lesson for Glen Beck and others that are trying to push religion and government closer together. Secularism needs to be the preferred model because Theocratic governments where religion becomes officially part of the government or governmental processes rarely respect religious groups outside their own. I don't see a lot of hope for Bahai in Iran other than to leave - which seems to be what the government is trying to get them to do. Russia and China should step in and ask that the leaders be allowed to leave - and other countries like India, US and Europ that have large Bahai populations see if they can make room. Because based on the way things are going now in Iran, things aren't goign to get much better for these peopel devoted to a religion that preaches and brotherhood of mankind and preaches the common universality of religion

    August 31, 2010 at 5:46 pm |
  5. Duane St.Petersburg Florida

    lived in southeast Asia for eleven years.....you people have no idea how lucky and spoiled you all are living in this country. No clue at all.........

    August 31, 2010 at 5:44 pm |
  6. John R.

    This world is way too hung up on what people choose to believe about little people in the clouds. Whatever.

    August 31, 2010 at 5:43 pm |
  7. David W.

    America was built upon the principles of Christianity. Religious tolerance in this country is one thing, but to attempt to eliminate Christ, God and the religious foundation upon which this country became the greatest power on earth due to the grace of God because we may offend those who worship another deity isan abomination! America has to draw the line somewhere, that somewhere is now. Goodbye Islam. If u dnt believe in the one true creator, the Lord of Americas forefathers, and have no desire to conform go back where the God of your understanding is the only one tolerated. For the powers that be in the U.S.A wake up before its too late. This is America, its time to to regain our idenity!

    August 31, 2010 at 5:43 pm |
    • Salvatore

      You sir are a traitor. If you don't like the United States that the forefathers set up for us here go back to England. You are the worst example of an American. Read the Declaration of Indepenence some time. You allign yourself with the same ideals that caused us to claim our independence from England. Read the Constitution and the Amendments. The state shall NEVER side with one religion over another. You want to pursue hate but you can't pinpoint it so you want to destroy our great Constitution and country to find it? You hide behind the very protections you would have us destroy. You want the truth? You can't handle the truth... I said America, and you said ,"the free America?" and I said..." Is there any other kind?"

      August 31, 2010 at 6:14 pm |
  8. anon

    Most major religions say you will go to hell if you dont practice that religion so aren't we all just going to some other religions hell?

    August 31, 2010 at 5:41 pm |
  9. Carlos

    Bahá'í is a monotheistic religion that originated from Iranian Islam and consequently considered an apostasy in Muslim countries. They include Buddha, Jesus, Abraham, the Bab, and even Muhammad(?) as divine messengers.

    Bahá'í is the most peaceful of all the Islamic faiths. They even allow other religions services and prayers in their temples, something that I doubt will be allowed in the mosque to be built nearby Ground Zero in New York City.

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

      yes Carlos, except that the Bah'i Faith is completely independent from Islam, it is not another branch from Islam nor any other religion.

      September 3, 2010 at 3:12 pm |
  10. Loren

    This is a reflection of the tolerance that Islam follows. And Mayor Bloomberg in New York believe the words of the Imam who wants to build a mosque near the site of the World Trade Center. Oh what fools these mortals be.

    August 31, 2010 at 5:36 pm |
  11. vanessa

    Unlike the majority of Muslims who pray the traditional prayers in a language foreign to them– and therefore have no idea what their own religion is actually about– I have read the Q'uran in my native language, and I do understand what it is about. It is NOT a religion of peace. Not at all. In fact– the non-Islamic people who defend (for the sake of being "tolerant") Islam are on the Kill-list just as much as the rest of us "infedels". Also on the kill-list? Muslims who aren't good enough at being Muslim. The whole book is one giant license to kill, plunder, and destroy. And we are just dumb enough to call it "peace" because we won't dare offend somebody.

    August 31, 2010 at 5:33 pm |
    • Salvatore

      Vanessa... are you naturally this frightened? If you compare the amount of muslims in the world to the amount of extremists of that faith you will find that the extremists are a relitively low number of the population... When you get stung by a bee do you freak out and think that all bees are evil and after you?

      August 31, 2010 at 6:02 pm |
    • vanessa

      Not frightened at all, Salvatore. I actually READ THE BOOK. Have you? Do you know that according to the Q'uran, any person refusing to convert to Isam must die? I'm sure that not all Muslims are willing to follow their religion to that extent. This, failure in obedience, of course, makes them bad Muslims, and for that the Q'uran also condemns them to death. I do not speak from fear– I speak from the book itself. It's in there, over and over.

      August 31, 2010 at 7:44 pm |
    • Frogist

      @vanessa: And by putting down the religion that moderate muslims practice you are doing exactly what you accuse the extremists of doing.

      August 31, 2010 at 10:37 pm |
  12. Mortazavi

    Minoo azizam, our thoughts are with you and beautiful Iran in hopes that one day this regime will end and be peace will rise....its just a matter of time inshallah.

    August 31, 2010 at 5:32 pm |
  13. Nick


    August 31, 2010 at 5:32 pm |
  14. yazzy

    This is not what Islam promotes and those of u who keep calling Muslims terrorist need to realize that if u can call all Muslims terrorist bcuz of wat a group of radical people did then we can call all germans natzis, all white christians racist (bcuz of kkk) etc. Instead of being ignorant go educate urselves. Personally I think muslims should live in muslim countries bcuz it wuld b much easier 2 practice islam and not have a bunch of ignorant people think ur crazy cuz u don't drink,fornicate,dress modestly etc.

    August 31, 2010 at 5:27 pm |
    • vanessa

      Are you serious? Before you tell other people how they need to be educated, you should learn your native language. U R not convincing anybody U R smart when U choose 2 type like this. Also, since we are encouraging the acquisition of knowledge– read the Q'uran. Then come back and reply.

      August 31, 2010 at 8:28 pm |
  15. ivan libya

    Just goes to show you, RELIGION is the source of all these problems. How many atheists do you ever read about committing acts of violence in the name of their disbelief? ALL RELIGION is intolerant in one way or another, only us atheists truly give you the freedom to believe in whatever the heck you want to.

    August 31, 2010 at 5:27 pm |
  16. mavv

    Why worry about this....its only Muslims. They all just 1 foot off the camels back living in 5th century. Until they change the Koran to come up with their own Jesus who will have died for sins of their fathers......LET US ALL PRAY FOR FORGIVNESS and move on with todays news. CNN should stop digging up 25 yr old stories.....JESUS F$@# CHRIST ALL MIGHTY.

    August 31, 2010 at 5:25 pm |
  17. simple01

    Iranian Islamic regime committed crimes against Bahia faith people even worse than the crimes committed by Hitler against Jews. This is an evil regime with no regard for human life. These mullahs are monsters they slaughter people with the name of religion. They are more brutal than Al-Qaida. State sponsored terrorism.

    August 31, 2010 at 5:23 pm |
  18. Jim Monaghan

    High time for a regime change in Iran – by any and all methods.

    August 31, 2010 at 5:23 pm |
  19. Karim

    Shia are the biggest kuffir of them all. Sort of ironic that they're criticizing anybody else for being un-Islamic...

    August 31, 2010 at 5:22 pm |
  20. Frank Rizzo

    The Ghazwah of Badar: 624 CE- Muslims at Madinah, under the guidance of the Islamic Prophet (Mohammad) set up as merchants. They prospered and grew rich. Islam also spread fast. Mohammad preached it openly in the Mosque, and prayers were said there everyday. Preachers were sent from Madinah to other cities as Madinah itself became the center of the new religion. The Quaraish of Makkah, proud of their strength, wealth and position regarded it a threat to their very existence.

    The Makkans conspired againist Islam and sent a caravan of 1000 men, fully armed, for conflict and giving crushing defeat to the Muslims. They even offered reward for killing Mohammad. The inhabitants of Madinah were frightened when they heard the news. They knew the Qurasih meant mischief. 300/313 Muslims gathered under Mohammad's banner to defend themselves. Though small in number, but imbibed with spirit of Islam and guided by Mohammad. Muslims had solemn belief in their victory.

    The enemy was led by the Chief Man of Makkah and arch enemy of Mohammad Abu Sufiyan himself. Mohammad displayed magnificent military skill and forced the enemy to fight at Badar, a small village about eleven miles South West of Madinah in the year 624–the second year of Hejira. The Muslims fought very bravely. They swept the Makkans off the field. The Makkans fled giving prisoners and leaving 50 dead, including Abd Jahal, the commander who was slain by two young boys. Muslims suffered negligible losses. Mohammad showed great diplomacy and foresight rejecting vengeful advice and held Makkans to ransom and treated them well.

    August 31, 2010 at 5:22 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.