Bahais try to help others escape persecution in Iran

Farhang Khosh and his brother Mehdi Khosh both fled Iran several years ago to escape persecution because they are followers of the Bahai religion.

It’s been nearly a year since seven leaders of the Bahai faith in Iran were arrested and accused of spying for Israel.

Now, Bahai followers in the United States — including a group in Lawrence — are asking for help. They want the U.S. and other nations to condemn the detention and send a message to the Iranian government.

“We’re a small group of Bahai here, and we’re asking our congressmen to help us,” said Farhang Khosh, a Lawrence Bahai. “Iranian leaders, at least they will know that others are watching.”

The detained Bahais have been unable to speak with attorneys and no evidence has ever been presented against them, Khosh said.

Bahais have been persecuted in Iran since the religion was born in 19th century Persia. It is the largest minority in Iran, a nation now dominated by the Muslim religion. Bahai leaders in the past have disappeared or been killed. The persecution increased after the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, Khosh said.

Unless the rest of the world opposes the Bahai detention, Iran’s leaders will be encouraged to continue persecution and do the same to other religious minorities, Bahais say.

The Bahais are writing letters, sending e-mails and making phone calls to their congressional representatives asking them to approve a resolution introduced last month condemning Iran for detaining the Bahai leaders and calling for their release. They ask other Americans to do the same.

“Sitting and doing nothing is not a good option. If you do nothing, then they will do more,” Khosh’s brother, Mehdi Khosh, said of Iran’s Bahai persecutors.

‘Peaceful religion’

There are about 30 Bahais practicing their faith in Lawrence. They worship on Sundays in a small Bahai center at 4824 Quail Crest Place. The faith calls for believing in God and one religion, but it doesn’t deny other religions, including Christianity and Islam. Bahais consider all religions united as one.

“We should unite and work together rather than fighting,” Mehdi Khosh said. “It doesn’t matter what background you have, there should be peace among us.”

Lawrence Bahais come from a variety of backgrounds, including Chinese, Japanese, Iranian and African, the Khoshes said.

“It’s uniting through diversity,” Mehdi Khosh said. “This is a very peaceful religion.”

Escape from Iran

Mehdi and Farhang know firsthand the persecution against the Bahais in Iran. They grew up in Tehran, the nation’s capital, and after graduating from high school in 1983, they wanted to go to a university. The government prevented them. Instead, the government wanted them to fight in a war with Iraq that started in 1980.

“As Bahai we cannot touch a gun. We cannot kill anyone no matter how hostile toward us,” Mehdi said. “We decided our lives were in danger. We didn’t have any future.”

In 1984, the brothers fled Iran. They walked by night for several weeks, avoiding detection by security forces and fighting off hunger and dehydration.

“It was an extremely difficult time,” Farhang said.

They finally arrived in Pakistan and gained refugee status through the United Nations.

Mehdi and Farhang were accepted into the U.S. and took up with a Bahai community in Bennington, Vt. In the summer of 1990, they moved to Lawrence and entered Kansas University. After graduating in 1994 they studied naturopathic health at Bastyr University in Seattle. Both became naturopathic doctors and returned to Lawrence in 1999. They opened Natural Medical Care. Both are married and have children. Both became U.S. citizens.

Miracle encounter

During their trek to Pakistan, the brothers one night mistakenly crossed into Afghanistan. Troops from the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and were still there fighting insurgents.

Mehdi and Farhang encountered a group of people who began shooting at them. They were captured. Their captors were Baluchis, border people who moved along both sides of the Iran-Afghanistan border and who sometimes robbed and killed stragglers and people fleeing Iran. The group’s leader, a large, tall man, grabbed Mehdi by his front collar, lifted him off the ground and brought him to eye level.

“I thought this was it. I was going to die,” Mehdi said. “I said a short prayer and I had my eyes closed.”

The tall man forced open Mehdi’s eyes and looked into them. He spoke a name and asked Mehdi whether he was related to that person. The name was that of the brothers’ grandfather, a man they described as a “healer” in a town near Tehran. The tall man set Mehdi down. He said something about a seriously ill family member who once had been treated by the brothers’ grandfather.

“Not only did he not rob us or kill us, he guided us out, telling us where to go,” Mehdi said. “It’s something I will never forget.”