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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. 2Timothy4 2-4

    What do they expect? It's the price to pay for worshiping a false God. People are spoiled thinking that these results are exclusive to Iran. The Bible makes it clear that one day the US will be a Christian Nation again and we won't tolerate people like these in our midst. Jesus gives us a choice. Don't cry and complain just because you made the wrong one. It was YOUR choice. Even those worshiping false Gods who aren't in a literal prison are imprisoned in their own minds. So it's all the same. These people are getting exactly what they deserve.

    August 31, 2010 at 7:31 pm |
    • lee1947

      "The Bible makes it clear that one day the US will be a Christian Nation again and we won't tolerate people like these in our midst." 2Timothy4 2-4 just where in the Bible does it say this. I have read the Bible a few times and do not ever remember seeing The United States mentioned. Help me out.

      August 31, 2010 at 8:02 pm |
    • MrsFizzy

      Some people just think it's all about them.

      August 31, 2010 at 8:53 pm |
  2. Susan

    It is time we all stopped hating. The spiritual truth of all the world religions is the same - love. So many of these comments miss the point of this article. It was about strength, love, certitude, and steadfastness. It was about making the world aware of the injustices that continue to occur based on faith (Baha'i, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, etc.)

    August 31, 2010 at 7:29 pm |
  3. Speak out!

    She needs to write a book, make it a best seller, turn it into a film and then the world will see.

    August 31, 2010 at 7:28 pm |
  4. 2Timothy4 2-4

    What do they expect? It's the price to pay for worshiping a false God. People are spoiled thinking that these results are exclusive to Iran. The Bible makes it clear that one day the US will be a Christian Nation again and we won't tolerate people like these in our midst. Jesus gives us a choice. Don't cry and complain just because you made the wrong one. It was YOUR choice. Even those worshiping false Gods who aren't in a literal prison are imprisoned in their own minds. So it's all the same.

    August 31, 2010 at 7:27 pm |
    • Duggy

      "The Bible makes it clear that one day the US will be a Christian Nation again "

      Really?

      August 31, 2010 at 9:35 pm |
  5. Becky

    I don't know much about Vosough's religion, but I do know one thing.....Jesus Christ is the ONE and ONLY way to Heaven. In John 14:6 it says," I (Jesus) am the WAY, the TRUTH, and the LIFE. Being a Mormon, a Jew, a Catholic, a Baptist, Jehovah's Witness, or any other religion will not save you from your life of sin. God loves each and every one of us–even those who have never heard about Him–that He gave His Son, JESUS, to come to earth to die for our sins (disobedience to God). The Bible says in Romans 10:9-10 "That if you confess with your mouth "Jesus is Lord" and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart you believe and are justified, and with your mouth confession is made unto salvation." Now this isn't just a knowledge of who Jesus is..or what He has done..it is a whole-hearted surrender and whole-hearted repentance to Him. You must accept by faith God's FREE gift of salvation...and recognize that "it is NOT by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us" Titus 3:5. You may be wondering, "How can I have faith in a God who I can't see?" Well, in Romans 10:17 it states that "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God." Read the BIble-let God show you who He is..let Him show you His INCREDIBLE love. In John 3:16 the Bible says," For God so loved the world that He gave HIs only begotten Son (Jesus) that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life." These words are so true. God wants us to come to Him. He wants to save us, He wants to save YOU.
    You also may be wondering ,"How can others who have never heard of Jesus come to know Him as their personal Lord and Savior?" In Romans 1:20 it says,"For since the creation of the world His (God's) invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse." Creation in itself clearly shows the power of God. God also draws you...all you must do is run to Him and accept Him. Jeremiah 29:13 " You will seek Me (Jesus) and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart." Don't turn God away...He loves you and has special plans for your life. I hope this reaches someone today. Remember–JESUS LOVES YOU! HE LOVES YOU SO MUCH THAT HE DIED FOR YOU! 🙂

    August 31, 2010 at 7:21 pm |
  6. John R.

    I don't get it

    August 31, 2010 at 7:16 pm |
  7. jme0598

    What I really need here is for Hillary Clinton to explain why she thinks she has any right to dictate to anyone about religious freedom when she is doing absolutely nothing to protect the legal rights of Morman Fundamentalists in United States to practice polygamous marriage, which is a fundamental part of those people's religous practices? As a reminder, polygamous marriage is a normal and accepted practice that continues today as we speak in many areas of the world, including Africa, Middle East, and in some areas of Asia, that is considered to be a moral and correct way to be by those people, so who is anyone to judge? Frankly I do not see who Hillary Clinton thinks she is to tell anyone how to be when she is choosing to engage in what amounts to selective enforcement of freedom of religious expression of citizens within her own country. This is hypocritical and someone really ought to call Hillary Clinton out on this.

    August 31, 2010 at 7:15 pm |
  8. khala

    now a days in iran every body is guilty and suspicious unless the opposit of that be proven

    August 31, 2010 at 7:02 pm |
  9. Surthurfurd

    Satan does his most impressive work with the hands of those who claim to be following God.

    August 31, 2010 at 6:51 pm |
  10. sebio( rastafarian)

    Chrisitianity= fair/ unjust way of life was introduced to africans because we had no relgion said the christians. We know where that got us. Then we were told that only with christ, can we enter into heaven. How is that possible when even christianity cannot agree on how to be christian! If eveyrone's opinion of organized religion is what heaven is going to be like, i prefer to stay on earth with the mafia/warmongers, kkk, the pope and every other corrupt organization. The holy books has been interpreted by these people's personal belief, that the only way into heaven is by hatred and disbelief in the truth.

    August 31, 2010 at 6:44 pm |
  11. Carolyn

    Intolerance of anything, including religion, should not be tolerated. That goes for all the bigots on this forum who insist on attacking others just because they have a religous belief system. You are absolutely no diffent than the officials mentioned in the article.

    August 31, 2010 at 6:37 pm |
  12. Roger

    I enjoyed reading the article as well as the comments. Everyone had something important to say while respecting our flourishing democracy and sharing of divergent ideas. Mrs. Vosough is another brave woman – like thousands of other Iranians who never submitted to the whims of Mullas to save their lives. Baha'is also believe in a) "independent investigation of the truth" – if we all seek the truth without preconceived notions, we come to the same conclusion; religion should not be a hereditary or forced phenomenon in people's lives b) "abolition of all prejudices, superstitions, and dogmas" that keep humanity backward, hateful, and belligerent; c) "harmony of science and religion"; i.e., if something does not make sense scientifically speaking, it is nothing but superstition and dogma; i.e., no one physically went to heaven or came back in that physical form, nor is there any Imam who lived and decided to hide in a well to reappear at the end of time to bring peace to the world; d) oneness and wholeness of the human race and that the human race is genuinely good and is made in the image of God if trained properly and that if there is one God, then there is one human race, and one country of God, and that we are all his children, and must live in peace like brothers and sisters; e) progressive revelations; i.e., all religions come from the same God but after about a thousand years, the religion disintegrates (such as hundreds of sects in Christianity, Islam, and even Judaism and Buddhism) because of man's limitations and as many of those teachings do not apply to our modern times – consider the concepts of stoning women, cutting off people's arms and feet, or following a priest or a mulla rather than using your own god-given intellect and wisdom, etc. Baha'u'llah, the prophet founder of this Faith, composed some one hundred volumes in the course of forty years that he spent in jail and exile (1853-1892). Their study provides true enlightenment and peace of mind which will contribute to a better world. Thanks to those who took the time and read my long essay. Humbly submitted.

    August 31, 2010 at 6:23 pm |
  13. Steve Engle

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    August 31, 2010 at 6:23 pm |
  14. Nan

    Finally i see a story about Bahais imprisoned in iran. Thank you. We should all focus on our common humanity and not what divides us. Its much healthier. We're the fruits of only one tree..humanity. Lets promote unity and not animosity. We are better than that.

    August 31, 2010 at 6:15 pm |
  15. Percy

    "Xugos – Why do we have to bring muslims into everything? I'm a muslim, and I wouldn't rather live anywhere else than America. People who cry about discrimination are usually just looking for hand outs, get off your behind and work hard, and you'll find that America will accept you just fine."

    Bravo.

    Injustice – social, religious, etc. has a way of correcting itself in the US. Did you get profiled? Jailed falsely? Made fun of in school?

    It's actually EASY to get justice IF you are resourceful enough to make things work for you. The ACLU, the local news, a politician – the avenues are endless in the US.

    August 31, 2010 at 6:10 pm |
  16. Jim X

    Believe what you want to. Just have enough sense to keep your beliefs to yourself within your family and quit trying to spread your beliefs to those who are content with what they believe. It isn't rocket science. Each person is responsible for their own life and perception of salvation and should mind their own business.

    August 31, 2010 at 6:05 pm |
  17. Kevin

    Please,,,just stop with the intolerance crap aout American's towards other faiths, specifically Muslim! Unfortunately, for the past 40+ years, and with few exceptions (such as Northern Ireland & Ok City), terrorist attacks HAVE been perpertrated by Muslims. It began as hi-jackings, then the Olympics; numerous bombings; behadings, stonings and flat out fanaticism culminating in 9/11. WHY SHOULD WE NOT BE CAUTIOUS??

    Where have been the "good" Muslims speaking out, or better still, acting out against the nuts they foster? HINT,,,they haven't! It's an evil, vicious and non-human religion that has to very quickly, learn how to live in this multi-cultural, and multi-religious world of ours.

    If there truly are a billion and a half Muslims in the world, why do they allow the fanatics to hijack their religion and bring shame upon it's name? ANSWER: Because deep down inside, you know they sympathize with the terrorists and world domination philosophy they embody. Whatever means to force Islam on the world is OK with them. When the Ottomans overran Eastern Europe and butchered all adults over the age of 6, and rasied the remaining as Muslims,,,,they were OK with that too!

    August 31, 2010 at 6:04 pm |
    • Frogist

      Wow that's a lot of faulty logic and biased justifcation.

      August 31, 2010 at 10:43 pm |
  18. IToldYou

    Stop wasting time believing in ridiculous religions and then these sort of things will need not happen. Seriously, almost all of the world's problems are caused by religion. People treat other people just as inhumanely for reasons stemming from religion as they do for money or land. It's time we all grow up and realize that daddy isn't floating in the sky and watching over us. We're alone, deal with it, pick up a book, and educated yourself.

    August 31, 2010 at 5:59 pm |
  19. Mike

    @Tomcolt 70% of those originally detained at Gitmo were released before Bush ever left office, never being charged with anything. The majority of those sent to Gitmo were never captured on any battlefield but turned in for bounties paid by the US with little or no investigations into the accusations. Please update your rhetoric. Tell us what you're excuse is considering this has been common knowledge for over 3 years.

    August 31, 2010 at 5:57 pm |
  20. Minoo Vosough

    Whee!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    August 31, 2010 at 5:56 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.