Mona Kashani Heern remembers sitting quietly at her desk in 1984 when her fifth-grade teacher asked, "Who is a Bahai?"
She and two others raised their hands.
Islamic religious teachers promptly escorted the trio from class, threatened them with hell and expelled them from school. Education was no longer an option for those following a faith deemed heretical by Iran's revolutionary government.
The moment was tragic for Heern, now a language-arts teacher at Joel E. Jensen Middle School in West Jordan, who treasured her education as an article of faith.
But it was only the beginning of her painful odyssey of survival in a hostile environment. A week after Mona's ninth birthday, her father, Jamal Kashani, an auto-parts dealer and volunteer leader in the Bahai community, was arrested and mysteriously taken away. With Mona and her younger sister in tow, her mother went from prison to prison, asking for him. After they finally found him in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison, guards taunted the little family by keeping them in the cold for hours before allowing them to see their father. When they asked for him in January 1985, the guard laughed and said, "Didn't you know we killed him a month ago?"
"I will never forget that horrible laugh," Keern says now.
On Friday, about 200 of Utah's 600 Bahais, a community that includes many Iranian refugees, met at the Fort Douglas chapel on the campus of the University of Utah. They prayed and protested plans by Iran's revolutionary court to try seven members of a national Bahai coordinating council on charges eerily similar to those brought against Heern's father -- "espionage for Israel, insulting religious sanctities and propaganda against the Islamic republic."
Nearly a half-million Bahais have been systematically persecuted by the Iranian government since the 1979 Iranian revolution, according to the faith's official Web site, bahai.org. In the past 20 years, more than 200 Bahais have been executed or killed, hundreds more have been imprisoned, and tens of thousands have been deprived of jobs, pensions, businesses and educational opportunities.
The defendants in the current case have been incarcerated since last March, barred from family visits or even meeting with their lawyer, the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner and human-rights activist, Shirin Ebadi. Though Ebadi is a Muslim, she has been "harassed, intimidated and threatened since taking on their case and has not been given access to their case files," the Iran Student Press Association reported.
Several countries, including the United States, Canada and England, have condemned Iran's treatment of the Bahai leaders, and more than 200 Muslim scholars in Iran have signed a document that reads: "We are ashamed. A century and a half of oppression and silence is enough."
"They are human rights activists whose only crime is being a Bahai, whose mission is striving for world peace and the brotherhood of all humanity," said Jan Saeed at Friday's service. "This current imprisonment is alarming. It will not go unheard around the world."
Heern and husband, Zachery Heern, held a similar prayer service in their home Thursday evening.
Mona met her husband at the University of California at Northridge.
After her father's murder, there was no way to recover his body, his work or their property, so her family fled. They paid smugglers to sneak them out of the country at night. After a weeklong trek on camels with almost no food, they reached the Pakistani border only to be thrown in jail. United Nations personnel rescued them after a horrific day in prison, but they went another three years as refugees without access to schooling.
Finally, they found a home in Germany, where Mona finished high school. She later made her way to Cal State Northridge, where she earned her English degree.
Zachery Heern is an American-born Bahai. His parents converted to the faith in the 1960s, while living in Salt Lake City.
He and Mona came to Utah in 2002, so Zachery could do graduate work at the University of Utah's Middle East Center. Ironically, his emphasis is on the history of Shia Muslims, the version most Iranians practice.
"I have a lot of respect for the religion," he says. "It is not Shia that is causing these problems. It is the government. The overwhelming majority of the world's billion Muslims are good people."
Meanwhile, Heern is delighted to be introducing the wonders of English literature to American middle-school students, who don't always appreciate the privilege of going to school.
Education, especially for women, is a principle of Bahai faith.
"Bahais were the first people in Iran to educate girls," she says. "If a Bahai couple has a son and a daughter and only enough money for one, the faith teaches it should be the daughter, because she's going to be a mother and her children's first educator."
Despite all the deprivations Heern endured in her childhood, the one she resented most was the loss of school.
"To me," she says, "that was real persecution."
Beginning » The movement began in 1844 in what was then known as Persia (modern-day Iran).
Founder » Mirza Husayn Ali, a nobleman from Tehran, founded it. He became known as Baha'u'llah, which means "Glory of God." He was a divine messenger, he said, but only the latest in a long line that included Abraham, Krishna, Moses, Zoroaster, Buddha, Christ and Muhammad.
Many paths » His message was that God is one and all religions have truth, an idea that rulers of the time found heretical. Thus, Bahai houses of worship have nine sides and nine doors to symbolize the many paths to God, who they say is continuously being revealed to humanity.
Humanist » Bahais preach equality of the sexes, the elimination of extreme poverty and wealth, universal education, the harmony of science and religion, a sustainable balance between nature and technology, and the establishment of a world federal system based on collective security and the oneness of humanity.