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Minister for Integration visits National Bahá’í Centre

The Rt Hon Don Foster MP, Minister for Integration, was welcomed on 2 July by a delegation of Bahá’ís, including individuals from Mr Foster’s Bath constituency, at the National Bahá’í Centre in London.

Minister for Integration Don Foster MP

Minister for Integration Don Foster MP  visits the National Bahá’í Centre in London

Mr Foster shared news of the impending launch of a government initiative, “Together in Service”, which will encourage interfaith social action. One of the aims of the initiative will be to consolidate the “A Year of Service” venture which was launched at the National Bahá’í Centre in February 2012 with Eric Pickles MP, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

“The best way for a Hindu and a Muslim to understand each other better,” Mr Foster suggested, “is by sweeping the road or helping the homeless together.”

“You continue to distinguish yourselves in the professions, the arts and particularly in the vital areas of education and conflict resolution,” Mr. Foster told the Bahá’ís.

The Minister also discussed the need for the Government to assist UK faith communities in developing a “counter- narrative” regarding the role of religion in society – to challenge the often negative stereotypes of religion that appear in the media and demonstrate its potential for positive influence.

Mr Foster felt that the spontaneous response of all faith communities after the tragic murder of Drummer Lee Rigby, in Woolwich, in unequivocally condemning the attack and standing together in unity, was a watershed moment. The show of unity and support illustrated the cohesive and harmonising role that all faith communities can have. Mr Foster said he was “very proud” of this swift and united response.

Prayers for ten Baha’i women on 30th anniversary of their execution

18 June marked the 30th anniversary of the execution of ten Bahá’í women in Shiraz, Iran. Their crime – “Misleading children and youth,” claimed the authorities; in other words, giving school lessons to Bahá’í children and teaching them about their faith.

Mona Mahmudnizhad, was just sixteen when she was executed for her faith in Iran

Mona Mahmudnizhad, was just sixteen when she was executed for her faith in Iran

The anniversary was marked with an interfaith prayer meeting at the National Bahá’í Centre in London. Faith representatives present remembered those ten women, and the shockwaves that rippled through faith communities around the world at the shocking news of their execution in 1983.  At the time of their sentencing, the then President of the United States, Ronald Regan, made a plea for clemency.

The youngest of the women executed, Mona Mahmudnizhad, was just sixteen when she was hanged. She was the last of the ten to be executed. The names of the others were Nusrat Yalda’i, ‘Izzat Janami Ishraqi, Roya Ishraqi, Tahirih Siyavushi, Zarrin Muqimi, Shirin Dalvand, Akhtar Sabit, Simin Saberi, and Mahshid Nirumand.

Poetess and a prisoner of conscience – Bahá’ís publish Prison Poems from Iran

An anthology of poems written inside Evin prison, Iran’s infamous and brutal detention block, was launched on 4 June at the National Bahá’í Centre in London by comedian Omid Djaili, writer Bahiyyih Nakhjavani and literary professor Farzaneh Milani. 


The poems are the work of Mahvash Sabet, 55, a teacher and former school principal. Ms Sabet is a member of the Bahá’í Faith – Iran’s largest religious minority and the target of decades of official persecution. She is a prisoner of conscience.

Ms Sabet is also one of seven former leaders of the Bahá’í community in Iran. She was arrested in 2008 alongside her six colleagues. They endured three years of show trials for a litany of trumped-up charges – manifestly untrue allegations such as espionage, political subversion and “spreading corruption on earth”. The charges were denounced by international observers and the Nobel laureate, Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi. But the seven were nevertheless each sentenced to 20 years behind bars.

Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, who adapted the poems from their original translations from Persian into English

Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, who adapted the poems from their original translations from Persian into English

Roxana Saberi, the American-Iranian journalist who was imprisoned in Iran with Ms Sabet and Fariba Kamalabadi – the other female member of the detained seven former Bahá’í leaders – was able to voice her support at the booklaunch by way of a recorded video message. “They tried to make the most out of their situation,” said Ms Saberi. “Among the many lessons my cellmates taught me, was overcoming the hatred I had towards my captors.” According to Ms Saberi, Fariba and Mahvash didn’t hate their captors. Rather, “they had compassion for all of humanity, even for those who wronged them.”

Prison Poems is published on the fifth anniversary of the incarceration of Ms Sabet and the six other former leaders.

Mr Djalili, who is also an advocate for the human rights of Bahá’ís and other minorities in Iran, hosted the book’s launch. “Iran clearly has control issues,” he told the assembled guests. “There are over a hundred Bahá’ís imprisoned in Iran simply for their faith. Iranian Bahá’ís just want to serve the homeland they love.”

Ms Sabet was dismissed from her teaching position after the 1979 Islamic revolution. She spent 15 years informally instructing Bahá’í students who were barred from university for their own beliefs. But she was also known for her love of poetry. And Iran itself is the land of the legendary poets Ferdowsi, Sa’adi, Rumi, and Hafez.

The poems, composed on scraps of paper in her Evin cell, were smuggled out of prison and out of Iran by the help of intermediaries. These samizdat pieces were sent to France, to the home of Ms Nakhjavani, the author of the bestselling The Saddlebag: A Fable for Doubters and Seekers. Ms Nakhjavani also wrote The Woman Who Read Too Much, a novel based on the life of Tahirih, the celebrated19th century Iranian poetess, a herald of women’s liberation, an early Bahá’í and source of inspiration for Ms Sabet.

Ms Nakhjavani adapted the initial translations of the poems into an English that echoes the tone of the original works. Speaking at the book’s launch, Ms Nakhjavani said that Ms Sabet and her six imprisoned co-religionists are “not victims but witnesses, not prisoners drawing attention to their own plight but representatives of other peoples’ suffering, not individuals demanding their rights but servants of humanity.”

Ms Sabet’s uncompromising faith and devotion to other people is present across the work. Her spiritual strength unifies poems that move from homesickness, to mourning for a lost Iran, to pieces that bear witness to the suffering of her fellow prisoners.

“And when a woman is forced to stamp / the death warrant with her own thumb / I forget my own shames, choke at hers, / Humiliated and heart-wrung.”

But Ms Sabet’s poetry does not vilify the Islamic Republic of Iran; indeed, the poems are unique for their defiant and confrontational optimism. Here is a woman of principle refusing to be a victim of her imprisonment. She has perhaps remembered the counsels of her faith, that “freedom is not a matter of place” – words spoken by a central Bahá’í figure, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of faith’s Founder, Bahá’u’lláh.

A final testament to Ms Sabet’s faith is that she does not use her poetry to dwell on her own suffering. The poet has hope for her situation and for her homeland – and yet she is not immune to the horror. Faith is the only response to their common plight.

“My heart aches, for you do not seem to know / The worth of that subtle inner star. / If only you could see the lovely one / Who lies prostrate in who you think you are.”

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