D.C. group prays for Bahais on trial in Iran

Tehran, Iran - For now, sending prayers is the best they can do.

That was the feeling among 15 members of the Bahai faith who gathered Monday night in a townhouse off Logan Circle to sing, read poems and pray for seven Bahais who went on trial Tuesday in Iran, charged with espionage and other crimes against the state.

Long persecuted by the Islamic government, Bahais in Iran must tread carefully. The defendants, who are community leaders, were arrested two years ago. According to Iranian news reports, they are accused of spying for Israel and issuing propaganda against the state.

The seven have had spotty access to lawyers, and details of the charges have been vague. As they waited for news from Iran, Bahais from Tehran to Washington gathered Monday in homes to recite poems by the 13th-century Persian mystic Rumi and readings from the founder of the Bahai faith.

"Hopefully they can feel us now, while they're sitting in prison," said Niusha Ziaee, 31, a health-care consultant who hosted the Logan Circle gathering.

One person there, Max Anis of Rockville, spent his youth in Iran with Afif Naeimi, one of the people on trial. He recalled his friend's decision to stay in Iran despite the crackdown on Bahais after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The faith was founded in Iran, which is considered its spiritual home. The decision to stay is never easy, said Anis, 45. Bahais and others can be arrested at any time.

Naeimi "was accepted to one of the best medical schools in Iran, but after the revolution, he was kicked out," Anis said. Government pressure on Bahais has increased during the tenure of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, relatives of the accused say.

"When people ask, 'How's your family there?' it's like, 'They're okay today. I don't know about tomorrow,' " said Monir Khanjani of Germantown, whose uncle Jamaloddin Khanjani is on trial.

The 150-year-old religion was founded by Baha'u'llah, who claimed to be a messenger from God and was imprisoned for his beliefs. It has 5 million followers worldwide, 160,000 of them in the United States and 3,000 in the Washington area. There are about 300,000 Bahais in Iran.

The mood at Monday's gathering was solemn. One man wept as he read a poem. The group had little information about the trial, where observers are not allowed.

Adding to the somber mood was the knowledge that 13 other Bahais were arrested Jan. 3 by Iranian police after large street protests. Ten were still being held, accused of illegal arms possession and fomenting unrest.

"In the face of this, what can you do?" asked Maye Aghazadeh of Bethesda. "You've done everything a citizen can do, and all we have left now is to say prayers."