May 9th, 2013
03:20 PM ET
By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Editor
(CNN) - Dwight K. Schrute was many things: paper salesman, beet farmer, lovable dork. Though he came from Amish stock, Schrute showed more interest in martial arts than Bibles and buggies.
But the man who played Schrute for nine years calls religion central to his life, and as Rainn Wilson transitions to life after “The Office,” his Baha’i faith is taking center stage.
Wilson is on the forefront of a campaign called “Five Years Too Many” that calls for the release of seven Baha’i volunteer leaders who have been imprisoned in Iran for the past five years.
“People need to know that this has happened and that this is happening and they don't,” Wilson said. “There are Baha'is rotting in jail on a 20-year sentence on trumped up charges simply because they have a certain set of faith beliefs that run against the theocracy in Iran."
The move from actor to advocate for a world religion is a big shift for Wilson. After a failed movie career and a lot of soul searching he is at peace with his television success and knows that his career might have peaked with “The Office,” which ends next Thursday after nine years on the air.
“It is probable that this was the high point in my career and the most awesome thing I'll ever be involved in,” Wilson told CNN’s Jake Tapper in an interview. “I just feel tremendous gratitude.”
These days, Wilson barely resembles his onscreen character. He sports a beard with a surprising amount of gray hair sprinkled throughout. His hair was mussed and he didn’t a wear brown suit and a yellow shirt. His were glasses more LA hipster than Scranton nerd. He’s ambivalent about life after “The Office.”
“It's bittersweet. I love the people there so much. At the same time, it was time for it to go away.”
From famous to influential
Despite being the most famous Baha’i in America, Wilson had been a reluctant spokesman for the faith. In a meeting with religion reporters in 2010, Wilson said it’s somewhat “sad” that a “big dorky” guy has become the faith’s most recognizable face, at least in the United States.
Still, Wilson has nothing but praise for the “beautiful faith I grew up in.”
Baha’is believe there is one God who has sent down numerous messengers, including Jesus, the Buddha, Krishna, Moses, Mohammad and Baha’u’llah, whom they believe is the most recent divine messenger.
The teachings of Baha’u’llah, who was born in Iran in 1817 but was exiled from his homeland, form the foundation of the Baha’i faith. He died in 1892.
Globally there are 5 million Baha’is in more than 200 countries, including 170,000 in the United States, according to the faith’s leaders.
Like other world religions, the Baha’i faith grew during the social tumult and soul searching of the 1960s.
But if the best way for a religion to grow is a healthy combination of converts and babies, Baha’is are doubly disadvantaged. Members of the faith are forbidden from proselytizing and babies born to Baha'i parents are not automatically considered adherents.
While Bahai’s don’t aggressively seek converts, they are desperately trying to drum up support for their persecuted fellow believers in Iran.
Baha’i leaders say the seven were taken into custody in May 2008. In August 2010 they were sentenced to 20 years each in prison for espionage, propaganda against the Islamic republic and the establishment of an illegal administration.
The U.S. State Department and human rights groups have condemned Iran’s treatment of Baha'is.
"In addition to killings, executions, and arrests, Baha’is suffered frequent government harassment and persecution, and their property rights generally were disregarded," the State Department wrote in a 2012 report.
One of the imprisoned leaders is Fariba Kamalabadi. Her brother, Iraj Kamalabadi, told CNN, “It has been very difficult for them to spend five years of their prime time in prison, even a minute of it was unnecessary and too many.”
Hollywood’s most famous atheist
Wilson is a person of faith, but he has Hollywood’s most famous atheist to thank for his rise to stardom.
The “The Office” was created by British comedian Ricky Gervais and first aired on the BBC. Gervais, an avowed atheist, regularly and caustically skewers religions of all kinds.
“I respect his beliefs,” Wilson said, while acknowledging that Gervais might not respect his. “I thank him for creating ‘The Office’ though. Because I wouldn't have a job without that and he's a brilliant mind.”
As “The Office” comes to an end, Wilson said he plans to travel with his wife and young son. He knows that he may never again get a role as good as Dwight Schrute. But he’s at peace with that, in part because of his Baha’i faith.
“My faith grounds me and centers me and gives me focus, and I'm very grateful for that.”
CNN's Jake Tapper and Moni Basu contributed to this report
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