Shiite regime's persecution keeps Baha'i faith in shadows of Iran

Reza speaks perfect English, is cosmopolitan and tech-savvy, but his future is at least as bleak as his past.

The 36-year-old Tehran resident has no university education, is banned from holding a fixed job, cannot own property, cannot practice his religion and must constantly hide his identity for fear of arrest.

For Reza and the 300,000 other members of the Baha'i sect, there is no respite from unending persecution at the hands of the Shiite religious regime.

The sect, which was founded in 19th-century northern Iran as a breakaway from Shiite Islam, has little chance of improving its lot.

Reza, who asked that his real name not be given, has spent his whole life working in the black market or as a private tutor. "I have no rights. I am a virtual nonentity," he said. "My family has the same fate, unless they succeed in hiding their identity. Is this a way to live?"

Waves of violent repression of the Baha'is since the 1979 revolution have resulted in numerous arrests, imprisonments and allegations of torture. The National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States says that since 1979, more than 200 Baha'is have been killed in Iran and 15 disappeared, most of them in the tumultuous early years following the overthrow of the shah.

More recently, human rights groups confirmed that Rouhollah Rouhani was executed on July 21, 1998, in the eastern city of Mashhad after having served 9 months in solitary confinement, accused of converting a Shiite woman to the Baha'i faith. At least four Bahai's remain imprisoned for their religious beliefs.

Baha'ism, a religion with more than 6 million adherents worldwide, was founded in the mid-19th century by Mirza Husayn Ali, who declared himself to be a prophet and adopted the name Baha'u'llah.

He and his followers, known as Baha'is, quickly were seen as subversive by the Ottoman Empire. Baha'u'llah was exiled, first to Baghdad and then to Akka in Palestine, where Ottoman authorities kept him under imprisonment and house arrest until he died in 1892. The headquarters of the new religion was established near Haifa, in what is now Israel, where it still remains.

Generally well educated, Baha'is long were part of Iran's elite, with many top professionals and royal court officials among their ranks. But when the monarchy was toppled in 1979, the new Islamic government viewed the Baha'is as royalist stooges and Israeli agents and singled them out for particular persecution.