Rosa Vasseghi, faithful to her belief in nobility of humanity and absolutely convinced by the truth of the core teaching of the Baha’i Faith on oneness of mankind, sets out to “tell” the world, in her book Where is the Justice: stories from behind closed doors, about her life in her homeland Iran, and the life of her dear sister, Rozita, who is at this moment in prison in Iran for her belief in same truth that motivates millions of Baha’is around the world to dedicate themselves at the hour of down of every day to the dual character of their purpose in life: to achieve a personal transformation, and to effect a social transformation to help bring about an ever advancing civilization. (Iran Press Watch)
ANNICK: Thank you so much, Rosa for sharing your story with us today. Let's start with your background. You were born in Iran; how old were you at the beginning of the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran?
ROSA VASSEGHI: I was 24 years old.
ANNICK: How did you first feel discriminated against, being treated unfairly based on your faith when living in Iran.
ROSA VASSEGHI: When the new government took power they didn’t let me continue my work and my studies and they also took everything I had built for my future. I remember I was working in a big company in the South of Iran. I was asked by the people who had taken over the company to change my religion and sign a paper that I was not Baha’i any longer to allow me to continue working, which I didn’t do. So they fired me and confiscated all the valuable things I had in my house in the South. Also they blocked my savings in the bank and took all the savings I had. And at the same time two of my sisters could not continue their studies at their universities as they were prohibited from attending. They took the house where my parents lived and my mother’s shop and all her inheritance. My sisters’ children also could not study at universities and many times were harassed by teachers, the principals and people from The Centre of Education in their cities because their parents were Baha’i. It is important to remember that all these things that I mentioned have been happening to other Baha’is too. Many people were thrown from their homes, jobs and universities – their only crime was that they were Baha’i.
ANNICK: This must have been so difficult for you, your family and friends to watch your freedom vanish. Did you have any hope for a better world to come soon?
ROSA VASSEGHI: I look at all Baha’is, as well as my family, and of course it has been extremely difficult for me and other members of my family to have our freedoms taken away. Also I believe it will be difficult to understand our situation in Iran, especially for those who live in a country or society which gives them freedom to practice their beliefs. For three decades I have seen how Baha’is have been suffering mentally and physically and cannot have a normal life. They are exhausted and live with broken hearts and sadness in their own country but also are living with hope and wanting to contribute to their homeland.
ANNICK: How many Baha’is are they in Iran? What has been the situation of Baha’is there for the last 30 years, and if it’s okay with you, would you please describe some of the methods of persecutions used to take their freedom away?
ROSA VASSEGHI: There are about 300,000 Baha’is living in Iran and they are the biggest religious minority. They are victims of a systematic persecution that has been conducted by the authorities over the last 30 years. Their homes and bank accounts are confiscated; they have no privacy of life; their phone calls and letters are monitored; their families are taken away to unknown prisons. Freedom is a beautiful word but it does not exist for Baha’is in Iran. They may as well be in a prison with walls, as they have no freedom of life. Their businesses are taken away, their properties are firebombed and their cemeteries are destroyed. Baha’i marriages are not allowed. Innocent children whose parents are Baha’i are harassed by their teachers, principals or the people who work with the Centre of Education. You ask how hard it is for Baha’is in Iran, I ask your readers to please judge for themselves.
ANNICK: Why are the Baha’is of Iran persecuted by their own government? I heard that Egypt is another country that badly treats the followers of the Baha'i Faith.
ROSA VASSEGHI: Baha’is believe in a prophet who came after Muhammad. The Iranian government is led by an Islamic clergy who consider this to be heresy. Also the clerical rulers of Iran interpret Islam in their own way and use it as an excuse to persecute people they don’t agree with or want to use as scapegoats, somebody to blame for economic problems and political unrest. I need to mention, under the laws of the Baha’i Faith, Baha’is are law-abiding and are not permitted to get involved in politics.
ANNICK: It’s amazing to see how strong and well behaved the Iranian Baha’is are during such difficult times. The world is behind them and hoping for their well being. No one would want to be treated as they are. What makes them appear to be so strong?
ROSA VASSEGHI: As Baha’is we believe we must love all people in the world and work to bring about a better world for all. Cruelty, hatred and hurting people, taking people’s rights and their freedom, are not part of our principles and who we are. All the hardship and difficulties have made Baha’i people stand up stronger than before and we have a duty to help our friends, neighbors and families with compassion. We learn that it doesn’t matter how much people have been cruel to us as we must love them. We have confidence that the future of Iran will be bright without any ignorance, and that hatred will disappear. We only need to have patience.
ANNICK: Tell us. What is the Baha’i Faith? And were the Baha'is always imprisoned for their beliefs or is that something new?
ROSA VASSEGHI: The Baha’i Faith is an independent world religion founded in the 19th century in Iran. It is now in nearly every country in the world. The purpose of the Baha’i Faith is to unite all the races and people in the world. The Baha’i Faith is about world peace, the oneness of humanity, the equality of women and men, the elimination of prejudice... and many things. Baha’is are by the most basic principles of their faith committed to absolute non-violence, obedience to governments, and no involvement with partisan political matters. Baha’is must respect and abide by the law in the land in which they live. If you look at the world you will find all Baha’i principles are something that people have wished to have one day in their lives and in the world. About the second part of your question I must say: In the early years of the Baha’i Faith there was extensive persecution, destruction of property... and exile of Baha’is. But this gradually changed and Baha’is were accepted by the government and the majority of the people in Iran until the revolution in 1979.
ANNICK: You mention that the birth place of your faith is in Iran, so why would the Iranian government attack its own people and destroy its own cultural treasures?
ROSA VASSEGHI: I really can’t understand why the authorities always attack Baha’i people but if you look at the history of Iran you can see, the manifestation of God , the founder of the Baha’i Faith, Baha’u’llah, was born in Tehran, the capital of Iran. Baha’u’llah came from a noble family. But He refused to accept a high position in the court of the King. He spent his time helping the oppressed, the sick and the poor, and championing the cause of justice. People in Iran really should be very proud and happy to have a manifestation of God in their own land. A person who prefers to give His life for people rather than hold more power. Someone who brings messages of love, unity and peace for the world. But the Iranian government cannot realize and understand what a valuable treasure it has. In reality I think people who have power are afraid of knowing new things. They don’t want to accept the value of the lives of all people. When they have chosen materialism, fundamentalism or other belief systems, it is difficult for them to have their principles challenged and also they are afraid of losing their power. The clergy in Iran have always interpreted Islam in their own way and as a result the Iranian government attacks its own treasure.
ANNICK: Obviously they seem to be narrow minded, without any love for beings. What strategy do they use to arrest the followers of the Baha'i Faith? Do they summon them?
ROSA VASSEGHI: Not really. Most of the time they don’t send any summons. They will knock on the door of a Baha’i home any time of the day or night, they search their homes, confiscating personal property, and taking people to prisons. Sometimes Baha’is will go missing for long periods of time and later their family discovers they are in a prison somewhere. When people are arrested in their homes they are blindfolded and taken away by car so that they cannot see where they are being taken and usually are unable to see their persecutors. Sometimes they call us by phone for questioning but when people go there they don’t come back home for a long time. Usually Baha’i people don’t have any access to an attorney or lawyer. Recently it has been said to some people that they can have a lawyer but usually their lawyer doesn’t have any power and they don’t allow them to attend with the Baha’i in court.
ANNICK: Were you imprisoned and if yes in what prison were you incarcerated in?
ROSA VASSEGHI: It is difficult for me to answer these questions. But I can say that in 1986 they arrested me in Tehran and put me in prison for some time. Please remember there are hundreds of prisons in Tehran, many houses and their basement have become places to keep prisoners. Most of the time you never know which prisons are where. Sometimes they call you by phone and give you an address to go to. When you go to their office they blindfold you and take you by car to another place so that you don’t know where you are. All that I know is that I was someplace underground.
ANNICK: Were you afraid when they came to arrest you? We hear such horrifying stories from Evin prison and other prisons. Could you describe a little bit of the circumstances in the prisons? Are the prisons safe and clean? And, do Baha'is get harsher treatment just because they are Baha’is?
ROSA VASSEGHI: My answer is both Yes and No. When I was arrested I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. I thought it could be nothing and after questioning they would let me go but when I found myself alone in a cell, dark without any light, wet, cold and without food for two days and I heard people screaming and asking for help, I was really horrified. I thought about who is going to help me. I was far from my family and nobody knew where I was and a hundred questions came to my mind. But after I was questioned by people who I was not able to see, I found they wanted to pressure me to change my Faith. And I knew that loving Baha’u’llah and to be a Baha’i is something that makes my life complete and gives me life. I thought that as a human being I must have the freedom to choose my own religion and must have freedom of thought and practice and worship which is a right based on human rights and all these thoughts have made me strong. They never put me with other prisoners. When I was in prison we talked with each other from behind closed doors and I found my food was different from them. My food was only raw potatoes. I believe prison is a place which is not good for innocent people but as I found, the condition of prisons, the food, the way they treat people, is different from each other. As for my personal experience, they mentally tortured me very badly, something that I never can forget and cannot talk about it.
ANNICK: How often do you hear from your family in Iran?
ROSA VASSEGHI: For 14 years I have been out of my country, Iran, and I have sent many letters to my family over the years but they have never received any of my letters. Sometimes I can’t communicate with them by phone. There are times when I call my family when the authorities answer my phone call and they usually say in Farsi: “is just coming”. I know they monitor our phone calls.
ANNICK: How did you manage to leave the country and why Australia and not another country?
ROSA VASSEGHI: I never thought of running away from my country. I love Iran. I came overseas for a holiday and also to learn English to find a job. I also thought it might help me forget what I saw in prison. Because any time I started working in Iranian companies the authorities found me and threatened my boss to fire me. I thought if I learn English maybe I could find a job in a foreign company. When I received my passport I decided to go overseas for some time and then I would go back to Iran. I was overseas and on the way home I found I could not go back to my country because they threatened my life and I didn’t have any choice than to become a refugee. I applied to many countries and then Australia accepted me and I came to Australia on a Humanitarian Visa.
ANNICK: How stressed are you today not being able to share the latest events with your family and friends?
ROSA VASSEGHI: At the moment my family and I live in darkness. I don’t have a normal life and I am exhausted. I walk, I talk, I eat and laugh without enjoyment, only to survive. I have cried and screamed in my heart. I can't sleep. I am living with a broken heart and sadness. Personally I don’t know what I must do; I am living far from my family, alone in Australia, because they won’t let me go back to my country. Now, here in Australia, I must suffer too because the Iranian authorities don’t allow Baha’is to have normal lives like other people. I am really very concerned for Baha’is in Iran and their safety, not only for my family; but for millions of Iranian men and women. And prayer and the people who are around me, and you and people like you, who show their concern and support about Baha’is in Iran, help me to stand up and be strong and to continue my life.
ANNICK: If the persecution ends, and we hope that it is soon, would you move back to Iran and could you find happiness there?
ROSA VASSEGHI: We are citizens of the world, and Iran is the land of my Beloved, my birth place and where I grew up. But I also love Australia too because when I didn’t have any place to go Australia opened its door for me and accepted me for who I am. I think if one day I will be able to go back to Iran, I will be very happy but I can’t give up the country and people who showed their love and support to me when I needed it.
ANNICK: The members of the Baha'i Faith are accused of spying for Israel and Western countries, why is that? What's the connection between Iran and Israel?
ROSA VASSEGHI: As we can see from history, Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i Faith, with his family were exiled in the 19th century by Persian and Ottoman authorities from His native land. In 1869. Baha’u’llah was banished to the city of Acre, near Haifa, where he was to remain for the rest of His life. And as a result the international headquarters of the Baha’i Faith grew up there and it is now located within the borders of modern-day Israel. The state of Israel was established 80 years after Baha’u’llah arrived there. The Iranian government is well aware of this history but unfortunately Baha’is have been accused of spying for Israel and many other movements such as Zionism. However, the Baha’i Faith has never been a part of any political movement, all these allegations are untrue and there is not any evidence to support it.
ANNICK: We understand that Baha’i students are denied the right to go to the universities just because they are Baha’is; is that true for anyone who is not a Muslim?
ROSA VASSEGHI: Baha’is are prevented from going to university because of their religious beliefs. While, other people cannot go to the universities because they have spoken out against the government about human rights and for other reasons. It grieves me that so many potential minds cannot be realized only because they are Baha’i or they have been born into a Baha’i family.
ANNICK: The seven Baha'i leaders who formed the national leadership of the community are entering their 3rd year in Evin prison and locked up in 2 x 3 meters cells. Their trial is over today and we still have no news. What’s your view of this?
ROSA VASSEGHI: In the last 30 years, Iranian Baha’is have been subjected to the worst form of persecution and many have lost their lives. Those dear Friends who have served in the homeland as guidance to their spiritual brothers and sisters have been in prison for more than 2 years. And the accusations against the Baha’i leadership have brought fear and grief to many people’s lives and especially to those who have had the experience of prisons, or lost families. In reality the authorities, with those accusations for which they don’t have any evidence, have put the lives of those innocent people at risk. I believe injustice is one of the greatest barriers to a peaceful world.
ANNICK: It is important to ask ourselves: “what can I, or should I do to support Baha’is and other innocent people in Iran and around the world?”
ROSA VASSEGHI: There are a number of ways you can take action:
1. You can write letters to your government officials wherever you are in the world and ask them to urge the Iranian Government to respect the human rights of Baha’is and other Iranians as citizens. Also you can write directly to Iranian authorities too. Experience over 30 years has shown this is one of the excellent and helpful ways to reduce persecution.
2. It is vital to educate people who are around you - families, neighbors, friends, classmates, and colleagues - as to their understanding of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and to create unity amongst them.
3. Raise awareness of people by telling stories, role plays, pictures and other activities about how justice plays a vital role in a peaceful world. People must find out what is happening to people around the world and maybe together we can bring peace to this world.
ANNICK: Rosa, please tell us about your new book, "Where is the Justice? Stories from behind closed doors," and where can people buy it?
ROSA VASSEGHI: My motivation in writing this book was based on my discovery of untold human suffering that went on behind closed doors. I thought of telling these stories so that others may hear them and may help people’s understanding of humanity, to explore their vision about human lives and as a way to honor those who were branded as ‘criminals’ in a flawed system of justice. The situation of innocent women and girls are told through the voices of two women, Aletea and Rebecca, who both experienced persecution in and out of prison.
The book tells stories of horrendous tortures endured by women and girls in prisons, some of which are beyond any concept of human imagination. They became scapegoats for the social, religious, cultural and political purposes of those who had power. Many of them were executed by hanging and many were shot. This must shock the conscience of humanity. My aim is to contribute to world peace. And I believe that when injustice dominates, or is the ruling principle, the conscience of humanity is lost in darkness. I found similar social problems in almost every place I visited. I found that the lack of equality between men and women has provoked violence and anger towards women, the price sometimes being women’s lives. This has roused my sense of justice and compassion for the suffering of others, especially innocent women and girls.
EXPERT from Roa's book:
I came from across the ocean to tell you stories from behind closed doors.
I came to tell you about the ugly face of our world and of humans.
I came to tell you about women’s lives, their light, their hope, their fears and death.
I came from the world where blind law and power denies truth and smiles.
It is time that our stories shock the conscience of humanity.
BOOK SUMMARY: Where is the justice? : stories from behind closed doors / Rosa Vasseghi
This book portrays the suffering of many women and girls whose lives were destroyed by those who abused their power. Those who survive live with their memories every day, reliving the pain inflicted on them and the sense of powerlessness? Their very survival, however, challenges the aim to control and force submission by their persecutors. It is the strength of the survivors that we must celebrate.
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