Every 19 days, members of Kansas City’s Baha’i religious community gather for a potluck and a traditional service they call a feast. It’s a remarkable diverse mix of races, ages and backgrounds celebrating a 150-year-old gospel of global unity. But the optimistic spirit of many of Kansas City’s Baha’is has been tested. Many have fled for their lives in order to practice their religion.
The Kansas City Baha’i center is in a former bank building on Independence Avenue. Here, at a recent Baha’i service, about 40 of Kansas City’s 400 community members take turns reading from scripture, and some offer songs and poetry. The diversity of the group is no accident; in fact, you could almost say it’s the point. Baha’i is a religion with a goal. The faith seeks to break down racial, cultural and economic boundaries to achieve peace and stability for the planet, and its scriptures offer a very specific plan for how to do that. This focus on unity is what brings many people, like Earl Moore, to Baha’i.
“One of the things that attracted me to the faith – cause I came up during the sixties and all that, and I found that so many things that we were trying weren’t complete; they didn’t have the complete answer. And I saw the Baha’i faith as the complete answer to the race problem in America and the problems of inequality around the world. It’s the complete package.”
Baha’i was founded in 1866 by an Iranian called Baha’u’llah, but Baha’is believe that his teachings and writings just the latest in a series of sacred revelations. Baha’is believe that all the world’s major practices – Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam – are all aspects of the same basic religion. And some Baha’is refer to the teachings of Baha’u’llah as the latest “update.” Baha’i has no hierarchy or clergy. Instead, local communities elect a group of nine to an assembly which serves as an administration. Kansas actually has a special connection to Baha’i. The second assembly in the western hemisphere was formed in the small town of Enterprise, Kansas in 1897.
For a group that prides itself on tolerance, Baha’is have drawn a lot of intolerance, especially in Iran, where the religion originated. Ever since Baha’i began, its followers have come under attack by fundamentalist Muslims. An early incarnation of Baha’is, the Babis, saw 20,000 of their members killed in the mid-19th century, and Baha’is founder, Baha’u’llah, spent most of his life either in prison or in exile. Badir Eshragi explains the problem some fundamentalist Muslims have with Baha’i.
“Their opposition to Baha’i is that they say that the Muslim faith is the last religion according to their Koran. That Mohammed was the last prophet, and based on that they say any religion that comes after them is not true. And that’s why they don’t accept.”
Baha’is are the largest minority group in Iran, but in a country that is 98% Muslim, they are just a sliver of the population. Zabi Khorram is one of Kansas City’s Iranian-born Baha’is. They make up about a quarter of Kansas City’s community. Khorram grew up in the small city of Yazd during the ‘50s and ‘60s, when there were about half a million Baha’is in the country. In Yazd, like in all of Iran, Baha’is and Muslims lived in the same neighborhoods and attended the same schools. Zabi says he realized at an early age that life was different for Baha’is.
“The first time that I realize that we were being [treated] different was the time that I didn’t some of the cousins on our mother’s side, and when I asked my mother why how come so and so is not here they said well they don’t like to come to our house because we are Baha’is and they are Muslims. They don’t consider Baha’is as sociable and clean. They’re dirty. Like here they call people ‘pig.’ So, in Iran, those days, anywhere you went – at the stores, most of the stores – they had signs. It said ‘For Muslims only.’ There were place you would go – it was a public place that you would get water. There were usually two faucets. One, it says ‘Muslims only,’ and the other one says ‘Others.’”
Starting in 1941, Iran was ruled by a Shah, Muhammed Reza Pahlavi. The government was officially secular, but to win the support of fundamentalist Muslim leaders, the Shah turned his back when these leaders spoke out against Baha’is. By the mid ‘50s, these leaders were preaching violence in sermons and on the radio. Zabi Khorram says the Baha’is of Iran learned to live with the looming threat of violence.
“Things were never really calm and quiet, if I can say. Because I know, from the time I remember growing up, we were always beaten by the kids, especially kids at the school. It got to the point that I thought being beat up is part of Baha’i. You know, you are to be beaten up, as a Baha’i growing up.”
As Khorram grew up, he learned more about the history of Baha’is in Iran, and how his family fit in to that history. Khorram is a fourth generation Baha’i, but in those four generations, 19 members of his extended family have been killed because of their religion.
“The one that I’ve always heard about is my dad’s uncle. He was baker, and they, the mobs, they just picked him up and threw him in the oven. That’s how he died. He just burned in that baking oven.”
After his father suffered an especially severe attack, the family fled to live in Pakistan for two years. Zabi eventually came to the US to study industrial management at KU and Central Missouri State. When he graduated in the early ‘70s, he returned to Iran, because there was a great demand for highly-educated workers. He got a job as a factory manager, but soon discovered that anti-Baha’i feelings were still strong.
“After about three months, one day I had a call from the owner of the company, who was living in Tehran. And he called me in, and he said, ‘I need to talk to you.’
And I said ‘Sure.’
So I went there, and he started talking to me. At first, he started praising me, ‘Well, you’re doing a great job.’ And I immediately knew where he was going, because I was waiting for that ‘but.’ That big ‘but’ drops. So after saying all that he said, ‘But there is one problem.’
And I said – and I acted dumb – and I said ‘What’s that?’
He said, ‘Well…we were told that you are Baha’i.’ He said, ‘You know people are prejudiced; people are not educated, and we can’t have that.’ And he wanted me to go back and tell them that, ‘Tell them you are Zoroastrian or you are a Jew or Christian or anything, but not Baha’i.’
And I said, ‘Listen, first of all, I haven’t old anybody. The second thing is I’m not going to deny my faith for nothing. Even if you give me the company, I’m not gonna say that.’
He said, ‘Well, we can’t have it.’
I said, ‘To me, there’s only to options: One is for me to leave. The other thing is for me to go back as is. You pick.’
He said, ‘Well, we don’t want you leave, but we can’t have you there either.’
I said, ‘Well, in that case, you know, I resign.’”
In the ‘70s, the situation for Baha’is was bad, but it was about to get a lot worse. The Shah was on the verge of being overthrown by fundamentalist Muslims. Led by Ayatollah Khomeini, these radicals said the Shah had become a pawn of the US and Western Europe. Many Baha’is, including Zabi Khorram and Badir Eshragi, realized the social climate was shifting and fled the country.
At a Baha’i potluck, Riaz Rabbani sits at the head of a table. He’s joined by his family to celebrate the birth of Baha’is founder, Baha’u’llah. Today, Rabbani is a cardiologist living in the Kansas City suburbs, but he was not even a pre-teen when the Iranian Revolution happened in 1979. Under the new government, Baha’is were forbidden from practicing their religion, attending college, or holding any government job. Since the government controlled most companies, the only job option for most Baha’is was starting a business, and most private businesses owned by or employing Baha’is could be taken over by the government. Rabbani says Baha’is were basically stuck, unable to get a passport.
“One of the precepts of the Baha’i faith is that you cannot deny your faith, meaning that, if someone asks you what your religion is, you have to say you are a Baha’i. You cannot say you’re not. And it would’ve been very easy to get a passport. What kept Baha’is from getting a passport was a little box on the application asking for what your religion is, and it you wrote Muslim or Christian or Jew, nobody would’ve asked a question, and you would’ve got a passport.”
After a few years under the new regime, Riaz Ribbani and his family were able to get themselves smuggled to Turkey, and eventually received political asylum in the US.
Life In The U.S.
But immigration to the US isn’t the any the end of the story for many Baha’is. After terrorist actions like the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis and 9/11, many Middle Eastern immigrants have faced discrimination in the US, and Iranian Baha’is are no exception. Baha’i community member Matt Reinschmitt explains.
“Over here, of course, there’s a lot of leftover angst and some hard feeling, for sure, from 9/11. And a lot of the Baha’is that come over here catch some of that from other people in the United States. They saw 9/11 happen, and they see this Middle Eastern-looking person and think, you must be a Muslim or one of the people that was behind this event that hammered our country. And it’s like, no, I had to flee for my life from those people, too. I am not one of them. “
The situation for Baha’is in Iran hasn’t changed much since in the revolution. The government policies have forced Baha’i practice to go underground. The numbers of Baha’i in Iran have dropped in 300,000, and, according to Amnesty International, 202 Baha’is have been killed. Iran claims that it doesn’t persecute Baha’is because of their religion. Instead, they say Baha’is are Zionist spies. But according to Zabi Khorram, there is hope.
“The government feeling towards Baha’is has not changed. People have changed, though. Generally, most people now have a more positive view of the Baha’i faith. And that is due to – there are a lot of TV stations in the United States as well as Europe that broadcast, and Iranians are watching it. And quite often, there’s a discussion of religion in the form of panels or question and answer, and they discuss. So people are becoming more open minded as they understand the Baha’i faith. And thanks to internet and computer, they can go in and read and study it.”
The international Baha’i community has worked hard to protest the persecution of Baha’is, and their grassroots efforts have been surprisingly effective. Zabi Khorram’s brother, Ezzat Ullah Khorram, was sentenced to be executed in the ‘80s, but was freed after an international letter-writing campaign. Recently, many of Kansas City’s Baha’is, both Iranian and American-born, have been lobbying Missouri’s representatives in US House to condemn Iran’s treatment of Baha’is. The proposed House Resolution 134 is currently pending in the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights.