A community of members of the Bahá’í faith, many of whom fled Iran after facing persecution, has formed in Ann Arbor and at the University of Michigan. Some of those practicing Bahá’í in Ann Arbor spoke to The Michigan Daily about their history, community and hopes for the future, saying it is their responsibility to publicly speak out since others cannot.
Around the world, there are over 5 million believers in the Bahá’í Faith. In Iran, the 300,000 practicing Bahá’ís represent the second biggest religion in the country.
After the Iranian Revolution of 1979, a new regime took over the government, implementing practices that denied protection, education and work to Bahá’ís. Within a few years following the revolution, more than 200 Bahá’í people were murdered. Many have chosen to flee Iran and come to the United States.
Bahá’ís in Iran still face harassment, discrimination, imprisonment and, in some circumstances, death. In November 2020, the Iranian government raided the properties of Bahá’í residents, requesting their property deeds and taking away their possessions. In a 12-month period leading up to August 2020, Iranian Bahá’ís reported that hate propaganda directed towards their communities increased by more than 50%.
In Ann Arbor, Bahá’ís have found a community through the Bahá’í Center of Washtenaw County, where they can express their beliefs freely. As the persecution worsens in Iran, Bahá’ís in Ann Arbor said they want to share their stories to help other Bahá’ís and raise awareness of the injustice many face.
Ann Arbor resident Paul Harrison is a practicing Bahá’í and regular at the Bahá’í Center of Washtenaw County. Harrison has lived in the United States his entire life and said he wanted to discuss these issues because he can do so in the U.S., whereas Bahá’ís in Iran are still facing restrictions by their government.
“Bahá’ís in Iran have no arena where they can actually tell their story of their persecutions,” Harrison said. “Since they have… no access to media, I want to tell their story and the Bahá’ís of Ann Arbor want to tell their story.”
According to Harrison, there is no reason justifying why Bahá’ís would be persecuted. Business Professor Jose Uribe, another member of Ann Arbor’s Bahá’í community, agrees. Uribe has never stepped foot in Iran and is originally from South America. He converted to the Bahá’í faith 20 years ago while living in Canada. Uribe said the Bahá’í faith is not a threat to others or their religions.
“This faith has a very different explanation of what religion is,” Uribe said. “It’s not these man made institutions, but it’s this common, spiritual heritage that embraces all of the prophets and all of the messengers that have come to enlighten humanity and to give us the message of peace and upliftment and help us become better people.”
To Uribe’s disappointment, he has never been able to visit his religion’s birthplace given what he could face as a Bahá’í in Iran. However, Uribe said he is optimistic that in the near future, Bahá’ís will be welcomed in Iran.
“It’s not possible for me to go there because the government would say, ‘This is a Bahá’í, it’s going to create more pressure and more problems for the other Bahá’ís,”’ Uribe said. “I have the hope that within my lifetime I will be able to visit the holy places that are associated with the Bahá’í faith.”
Sasha Meshinchi, a microscopy specialist and image analyst at the University, is another member of Washtenaw County’s Bahá’í community. At the time of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, he was just nine years old and living in Iran. He told The Daily he vividly remembers the extreme harassment he and his family experienced for practicing Bahá’í.
Prior to the revolution, Meshinchi’s parents both worked steady jobs. Within the span of one year, they were both unemployed and the government had confiscated the majority of their family’s property, he said.
Meshinchi said though his parents tried to hide the severity of the problem from him, he still experienced discrimination in his own life. When the government was repeatedly coming into their home unannounced and searching through their belongings, Meshinchi said it was hard not to notice that Bahá’ís were treated differently, even as a child. Meshinchi said some of the worst experiences happened while he was in school.
“When I was in school, multiple times we were harassed by the religious teachers,” Meshinchi said. “We were singled out during, for example, the obligatory prayers at noon every day. They will take us out. They will put us in front of the whole group, and they will just make fun of us. They would just disrespect us and our faith.”
Meshinchi also said he lost many friends and family members during this time. When telling a story from when he was a young boy, he described government officials arriving at his house. When Meshinchi opened the door, he saw a car full of members of the local Bahá’í community blindfolded in the driveway, one of whom was his uncle.
“They were arrested,” Meshinchi said. “They took them to the prison, and that was the last time I actually saw my aunt’s husband because he was killed because of his belief. And this happened in Tehran too, where the Local Spiritual Assembly members were kidnapped in daylight, in the city, and never found.”
After this incident, Meshinchi recalls the government confiscating the land of the Bahá’í cemetery, leaving his family without a place to bury their lost loved ones. Instead, Meshinchi said he and his family had to use a small plot of land in the middle of the woods.
Meshinchi emigrated to the U.S. as a refugee in 1997. Since then, he met his wife Nahal Meshinchi, another practicing Bahá’í. Like her husband, Nahal used to live in Iran but emigrated to the U.S.
Nahal Meshinchi said when she was a young girl in Iran, her uncle was taken prisoner for his Bahá’í belief. She explained that when he returned from prison, her family tried to keep his experiences private from her and her siblings because they were so young. Despite this, she said they were still able to catch snippets of their conversations.
“They didn’t share the details of his torture with us,” Nahal Meshinchi said. “Though later on, when my uncle was changing his clothes, I saw with my own eyes, on his back and shoulder, he had a deep circle area that was obviously some kind of hammer that hit him and maybe it was something hot put on him that created such a deep area on his back. That image is still living in my head and I can always remember that.”
Nahal Meshinchi also shared her experience pursuing an education. Since the revolution, the Iranian government has prohibited Bahá’ís from achieving a degree beyond high school. In order to attend an institution for higher education, Nahal Meshinchi said Iranian students must take an entrance exam which Bahá’ís were also barred from.
After the revolution, when many Bahá’ís were fired from their jobs, there were efforts to form an informal university system to help younger Bahá’ís get an education. However, these universities were not recognized as legitimate in Iran outside of the Bahá’í community and were deprived of resources such as buildings, computers and libraries, making it very difficult for students to learn, Nahal Meshinchi said.
At the informal university for the Bahá’í community, Nahal Meshinchi chose to pursue a degree in engineering. During her last year of education in 1999, she said the government raided the little resources the university had and arrested the professors.
“I told my roommate, ‘Now what do we do? I mean we need jobs, we need to pay our rent and sustain our life,”’ Nahal Meshinchi said. “We were about to graduate and do our final projects, and I was hoping to get a job.”
She said she was able to track down a professor who was not arrested to help her finish her education. Soon after, Nahal Meshinchi came to the University of Michigan to complete a degree in engineering.
In 2004, a source who asked to remain anonymous for fear of persecution of her family in Iran came to the University of Michigan. Though raised in a Muslim family in Iran, this woman, who will be referred to as Sarah, decided to join the Bahá’í club at the University. Within a year, she converted to the Bahá’í faith.
Sarah explained that the Iranian government is intolerant of those who change their religions, especially to join the Bahá’í community. She said if an official was made aware of her conversion to the Bahá’í faith, they could harm her family.
“The Iranian government plays a lot of tricks and such,” Sarah said. “They could very well, for example, take a family member hostage for me to show up, or confiscate family members’ property or home or things like that or put their children in prison until again, I show up.”
Sarah said she has been unable to return to Iran since 2007 in an effort to protect her family members. She said it is incredibly difficult to watch the persecution from the sidelines in Ann Arbor knowing that she cannot return to help in any way.
“I love my home country,” Sarah said. “It’s where I was born and raised. I have a deep sense of love for the country and the history. It breaks my heart to see all the injustice that happened in Iran … and there have been times that I have taken a step back from reading news in Iran or being really in touch with everything that is going on for mental health purposes.”
LSA senior Tiffany Harris is a member of the University’s Bahá’í club. Though the club may be small, Tiffany said she has always felt welcomed and encourages others to join.
“We’ll accept you, regardless of what you’ve been through or what you look like,” Harris said. “I think what’s really powerful is that we are, to me, just the most loving people you’ll ever meet. And just supportive, always.”
Harris also said the group discusses other current issues that some may not immediately associate with the Bahá’í faith, such as systemic racism and police brutality.
“It’s really being there for all people and ensuring that everyone’s needs are heard,” Harris said. “We’re addressing not only things that have happened in the past, but things that are still happening. Systemic injustice is going on and still occurs today.”
Standing up to racial injustice is a main principle of the Bahá’í faith, something Harrison affirmed. Long before Jim Crow segregation ended in the United States, the Bahá’í Faith encouraged interracial marriages and the equality of all races.
“The core tenet of the Bahá’í Faith is world unity and elimination of all forms of prejudice and racism,” Harrison said. “It’s a thing that we simply have not solved, but it is something that we are committed to and working together, not through opposition and contention, but by working together and forging these bonds of loving at the community level.”
U.S. leaders have acknowledged the struggles facing the Bahá’í community in Iran. In December 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution condemning the treatment of the Bahá’í community in Iran, citing specifically the government raids and the 10,000 Bahá’ís that were fired from their government and university jobs.
Nahal Meshinchi said she thinks resolutions and other international actions could put pressure on the Iranian government to stop the persecution. Nahal Meshinchi said she is hopeful that she will eventually be able to visit Iran again and the Bahá’ís of the world will have justice.
“The government of Iran might not change their belief or the way they handle their business — however, they are watching for international response because of the deal they made with other countries,” Nahal Meshinchi said. “It has an effect. Once they see that other countries are holding them for human rights, we have seen in the past that they will decrease the severity of the treatment. We are hoping that they release the prisoners. We are hoping they give property back.”
Daily Staff Reporter Lily Gooding can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.