Local couple highlights plight of imprisoned Baha'is

Cayman couple Beverly and Dale Banks are bringing attention locally to the imprisonment of seven Baha’i leaders in Iran. 

The couple are placing a series of seven advertisements, which will appear weekly in the Cayman Compass starting Thursday, to mark the seventh anniversary of the seven leaders’ imprisonment. 

The country’s Baha’i community is under the umbrella of Jamaica’s National Spiritual Assembly, which looks after it. The couple says they have been asked by Baha’is international governing council, the Universal House of Justice in Israel, to bring attention to Iran’s persecution of the seven leaders of the faith. 

The campaign also hopes to highlight the similar plight of 117 other jailed Iranian Baha’is. 

“We have been working worldwide with the Baha’is,” said Mrs. Banks. More than 200 have been executed in Iran since 1979. 

Origins of the faith  

The faith originated in 1844 in Persia, when a young merchant, Bab, predicted the arrival of “a messenger.” Bab was ultimately exiled to the Ottoman Empire and executed in 1850. In 1863, a Persian nobleman, Baha’u’llah, announced he was the messenger, founding the Baha’i faith, which spread to Europe and America. 

Today, authorities estimate Baha’i has 5 million adherents in 200 countries. Iran, particularly under the Islamic Republic, but also – to a lesser extent – under the Pahlavi dynasty, has persecuted the group for many years, accusing them of being “apostates of Islam.” 

Baha’u’llah claimed to be a “Manifestation of God,” violating Shi’ite Islamic doctrine, and suggested schools should teach Western science, and that nations create a world government, that men and women are equal and that clergy are unnecessary. 

Arrests of the ‘Friends’  

The Bankses hope to draw attention to the seven members of the “Friends,” an informal group that oversaw the 300,000-strong Baha’i community, Iran’s second largest non-Muslim religious group. Six of the Friends were arrested May 14, 2008, and jailed in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison. The seventh had been arrested two months earlier, ostensibly to answer questions about a burial in the Baha’i cemetery in the city of Mashhad. 

In early 2009, all seven were accused of “espionage for Israel” and spreading “corruption on earth,” according to Amnesty International. Authorities closed the offices of one lawyer who volunteered to defend the group, subsequently seizing files and computers. A second lawyer simply disappeared. 

In 2010, after four closed court sessions, the seven were sentenced to 20 years each. 

Mr. Banks, who is president of the Cayman Islands Veterans Association, said, “These seven have been treated the harshest. They were all long-standing members of the Spiritual Assembly, and had tried to oversee education of children, who are barred from university and schooled at home. 

“We want to call attention to the problems and make people aware of what is happening, and ask them: Please, pray, and those who can, write to the government, write to the UN, write to the U.K. government because they certainly can have an effect.” 

No donations  

The couple explicitly said they do not seek donations or contributions of any kind, citing Baha’i proscriptions against accepting money from those outside the faith. 

“We do not take money from others,” Mrs. Banks said. “It’s a safeguard.” 

Both were reluctant to name the size of Cayman’s Baha’i community, saying only that it is “several dozen,” throughout the three islands. 

”We don’t want to mention that,” Mrs. Banks said, looking at the Baha’i’s wider history of persecution. “We have been able to get things done, to get the Baha’i incorporated, to gain legal standing in Cayman. We were asked by Haifa to get this done.” 

Next week’s ad campaign, funded by the local Baha’i community, will introduce the seven prisoners in short sketches. 

The seven Baha’is arrested in 2008. Seated, from left, Behrouz Tavakkoli and Saeid Rezaie, and, standing, Fariba Kamalabadi, Vahid Tizfahm, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi and Mahvash Sabet. The photograph was taken several months before their arrest.