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Follower of Baha'i escapes Iran to find religious freedom in U.S.

Juneau man says believers persecuted in his home country

Posted: Monday, November 26, 2007

On a recent Saturday morning inside the modest Sadeghi home in the valley, four girls gather around a squat wooden-topped coffee table, listening as Kevin Araki leads a discussion about Baha'u'llah, the founder of the Baha'i faith.

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Anies Sadeghi, 9, doodles with a pencil on a handout map of historic Persia, the cradle of the religion that started in 1817 in Tehran. It's a typical modern-day American setting, where children are subject to religious teachings during weekend "Sunday school" sessions.

But to Anies' father, Mansour Sadeghi, it's a blessing happening in his living room.

Sadeghi, 47, escaped in 1984 from Iran, where his fellow Baha'is are still persecuted for their faith under the Islamic regime.

As a young man in Iran, Sadeghi knew a 16-year-old teenager, a neighbor and work companion, who was hanged for her association with the faith. She had taught religious classes similar to the ones taking place every Saturday in his Juneau living room.

The Baha'is are the largest religious minority in Iran with about 300,000 members there. They believe that all religions are derived from one God and that humanity should unite as one entity.

Baha'is have suffered waves of discrimination in Iran, where the current government does not recognize their religion. They are prevented from attending universities, holding important jobs or openly practicing their religion, according to the Baha'i International Community, a nongovernmental group that consults on several United Nations bodies.

"One day everything is fine, and then they come and take everything, closing businesses and confiscating everything," Sadeghi said. His father, who still lives in Iran, paid smugglers to take his son, then 24, to Pakistan and hopefully a better life.

Sadeghi secretly left his home in Shiraz with his sister, Sima Hermann, her husband and their two daughters who were both younger than 2. They were led by smugglers to a small hotel and told to not leave the room.

The group expected to ride in cars or trucks to the Pakistan border, a trip that should have taken a few hours. But instead they were brought a herd of camels in the middle of the night and told to get on.

It turned out to be a harrowing trip that provided Sadeghi a life-long appreciation for freedom.

"For the first 10 minutes it was good but with the way camels walk, up and down, up and down, within a half-hour we couldn't move our backs," Sadeghi said.

Four days later, still they sat on the camels' backs and still they hadn't reached the border. They ran out of food and water, so they drank along with the camels from a dirty puddle.

That night, Sadeghi fell behind the group because of his stubborn camel. He thought he'd been left alone to perish in the vast desert. Dusk was settling, and fear crept into his bones as he listened to the sounds of far-away animals and thought about revolutionary guards that could be lurking in the night.

After a few moments of panic, Sadeghi asked God if this was his plan, to take his life when no one knew where he was. He says he looked at the desert sky filled with stars and then let go of his worries.

"I feel I touched the very core of fear and peace at the same time," he said.

He eventually rejoined the group and they arrived at the Pakistan border the next day. They were taken to a small house where one of their handlers contacted Sadeghi's father for more money.

Knowing his father shouldn't pay more, Sadeghi went with his sister and her family out in the street where they caught a taxi ride with a man who spoke a bit of English. They were dropped off at a tea company, where a Baha'i man helped them contact the United Nations.

After two years in Pakistan waiting for paperwork, a Juneau family sponsored Sadeghi and he left Pakistan for Alaska, arriving here in 1986.

He married his wife, Beheshteh, in London after she left Iran. The couple has two children, Anies, and a son, Raz, who is 14. He says Juneau is his first home now, but he still worries and prays for the Baha'i people in Iran.

Earlier this month, Sadeghi led a commemoration in Juneau for 10 Iranian women who had been hanged in 1983 for being Baha'is. The women included Muna Mahmudnizhad, Sadeghi's neighbor from his hometown of Shiraz.

"We wanted to celebrate and remember the people who gave their lives for the faith," he said. The group showed pictures, said prayers and talked about how the religion is handed down.

Sadeghi says he thinks Americans - his own children included - take their religious freedom for granted.

"It's the reason we left Iran," he said. "When you don't have the freedom to even pray the way you want to pray, it's the worst thing that can happen to anybody."

• Contact Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or kimberly.marquis@juneauempire.com.



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