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I don’t recall whether it was two years ago or less, when right in the middle of my interrogation at Iran’s Ministry of Information I realized there were also some Baha’is among our friends.

The interrogator – or as he referred to himself, the expert officer – asked me to tell him about my Baha’i friends. I replied: “To be honest, they are nice people. They were calm and quiet and they truly helped a lot in the region. Of course, I have heard they never lie either.”

He got upset and asked:”Do you mean to say you agree with these people?”

I said: “Honestly, the only thing that bothers me is that I just learned here that these friends have religious inclinations, but I never saw any negative traits in them.”

He asked again: “Do you agree with them or not?”

I replied: “What difference does it make to me what religious beliefs they have? I know that they were aid workers like me, who arrived here a day after the earthquake and have stayed till now, nearly a month later. They were also here to help.”

He seemed not to be giving up. He showed me a picture and said: “Identify anyone whom you believe is a Baha’i.” I said: “It seems that you do not understand what I am saying. The people you are asking me to identify I know only as friends, not as Baha’is.”

It was at that time I realized why he insisted on me identifying them as Baha’is. He ordered me to write that they were teaching the Baha’i Faith. I said: “I never heard them mention the names Baha or the Bab or anything related to their religion. How can I falsely say they were teaching their religion?”

My interrogation lasted seven hours that day. He kept leaving and returning and he would say: “You are a Muslim and a Shi’ite. So write that they were teaching their religion.”

I said: “Nowhere in the writings of Islam are we encouraged to lie.”

He was obviously frustrated. He said: “I will report you as an enemy of the State and you will be sentenced to 12 years in prison. It seems that I cannot rehabilitate you. You are defending them instead of testifying against and betraying them.”

I said: “What exactly do you mean by ‘defending?’ As far as I remember, we were just helping earthquake victims.”

He turned back to me and said: “You bastards had no right to come to our aid. You are a bunch of Persians who are trying to portray the government as weak by pretending to help us Turks.” He was frustrated and angry, and I realized that he would leave me alone and let me rest for half an hour, when he got angry. So I said: “What do you mean by pretending?” And he got frustrated again and left.

Navid Khanjani

Navid Khanjani

I didn’t write anything about the Baha’i friends in our camp, then. However, I decided to write today as a token of my appreciation. To tell the truth, there were people of many beliefs in our group, ranging from leftist to liberal, from religious to non-religious, and from Muslim to Baha’i. The volunteers’ looks, religion and social status were never an issue. We were all united and serving. Some examples were Hossein Ronaghi, who is imprisoned and sick in ward 350 in Evin Prison, and Navid Khanjani, who is serving his sentence in Rajai Shahr Prison. We were all close friends. We laughed, sang and cried together. We were happy, afraid and courageous at the same time. All kinds of feelings were abundant, especially human nobility.

We all tried to serve selflessly and gracefully. There were educators who played with children in those conditions, and aid workers who specialized in women’s issues who talked to girls and women about health. There were also physicians among us. We spoke with the victims and went from one village to another after giving them what they needed. Doing all that, no one ever asked us what religion we belonged to or what religion we disliked. We became emotionally encouraged and stronger as we finished work in one village and moved on to the next. Most of my friends were well educated, and looked and dressed differently in their own cities. However, here we were all in dirty clothes travelling in the back of pickup trucks. Every night we returned to our camp and slept in our individual tents that we had set up in the courtyard of the warehouse. We woke up early in the morning, had breakfast and resumed work.

Sometimes local people approached us and asked for some necessities with much appreciation. It is not an exaggeration if I say the residents of Varzaqan and Aris loved the aid workers, and needless to say everywhere we went people were extremely thankful.

Getting back to the main topic, there was really no difference between us and our Baha’i friends. They, like the rest of us, were concerned for the country and its people. I don’t understand why we should compare or separate them from others. We are all Iranians and proud of it.

Aid Workers Azarbayjan

Aid Workers in Azarbayjan

This picture of us all brings back memories, as it shows smiles on everyone’s faces in the middle of all the hard work. Only after being imprisoned did I realize that these friends were Baha’is, and they served their people lovingly. I am definitely happy these beloved people are my friends. If there is a religious debate, I may have some criticism for this religion, as there can be criticism of every religion. However, religion was not important to me. They were dear to me regardless of what they believed.

Resources:

1. Prisoner information on Morteza Esmailpour can be found here

2. The earthquakes and their aftermath are described here

3. An article about Hossien Ronaghi is here

4. The notorious Ward 350 of Evin Prison is described here

5. There is a profile of Navid Khanjani here

3 Comments

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  • Aug 22, 2014
    I will add my voice in thanking you for protecting the Baha'is and writing so eloquently about your admiration for their humanity!
  • Aug 20, 2014
    Thank you Morteza for your selfless humanitarian work and enduring prison because you did not betray Bahai' aid workers.
  • Aug 20, 2014
    Thank you for sharing your experience with us. It helps us understand better what is happening in Iran.