COLORADO AVE — Although football is the focus for many people on Superbowl Sunday, Santa Monica Bahais had something else on their minds.

On the same day that seven Bahai leaders in Iran underwent a second court appearance on security threat charges, members of the Santa Monica Bahai Center gathered to pray for these troubled followers, who were arrested nearly two years ago.

The members, who were joined by followers across the country, expressed deep concern for their fellow Bahais in Iran. The first court session, held in January, was punctuated with overt violations of legal due process, those at the center said. Although hoping for better, family members were kept out of the second session, making it difficult to get the full story of the court’s events.

The leaders were arrested in 2008 for security reasons Bahai Center Assembly member Sheila Banani called “ridiculous,” most significantly espionage and acting together with Israel. If convicted, they could be sentenced to death, according to news reports.

The Bahai prophet Baha’u’llah’s exile from Iran eventually took him to Israel, where he lived as a prisoner until his death in 1892. Because of this history, Bahais consider the cities of Akka and Haifa, Israel as their religious and administrative center, and therefore have good relations with the country.

“Bahais are not doing anything of a violent nature or of a treasonous nature,” Banani said. “If they think going to Israel on pilgrimage is evidence of a spy network, than what can you do.”

The seven, who were held for a year before receiving any formal charges and access to lawyers, have denied the charges against them. They are the democratically elected leaders responsible for the needs of the Bahai people in Iran, Banani said.

Amnesty International, which considers the seven to be prisoners of conscience, has called on Iranian authorities to release them unconditionally. The human-rights group believes the seven are being held “solely on account of their beliefs or peaceful activities on behalf of the Bahai community.”

Praying for fellow Bahai followers is nothing new for the community. After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, many Iranian Bahai leaders were taken in to custody or executed, including family and friends of the Santa Monica Bahai community.

For example, Shidan Taslimi, who came to the United States as a student, lost his father when he was executed in 1980. Taslimi, chair of the Santa Monica Bahai Assembly, read aloud a prayer called the Fire Tablet during the Sunday service. The following Prayer for Steadfastness and Prayer for Release of Prisoners — read in both Arabic and English — were recited by individuals with experiences similar to Taslimi. Thirty years later, Bahai persecution persists.

“We have had Bahais taken in Iran for their faith and they have been executed by revolutionary courts as Bahais, it’s not that we’re just crying wolf,” Banani said. “We have reason to really be afraid.”

There are between 250 and 300 members of the Santa Monica Bahai community, which originated in 1948. Unlike the United States where religion can be practiced freely, Banani said, the Bahais in Iran have never been accepted. There are even rules barring them from seeking higher education.

“It’s a prejudice, pure and simple,” Banani said. “No matter what Iran has signed to in terms of international law, this is what they’re doing to Bahais.”

The Bahais are not a violent or treasonous group, Banani said. In fact, their main tenants of belief include unity, equality and dignity for all people and their fight for freedom of these seven leaders consists mainly of appealing to international agencies and the U.S. government.

“The hope is that there is sufficient worldwide attention,” Banani said. “Sympathy … is the next best thing to freeing the Bahais.”

The prayer meeting was designed to both comfort the Santa Monica Bahai community and become part of a worldwide show of support for the leaders. Since the seven were taken into custody, 10 more Bahai people in Iran have been arrested, Banani said.

As the three dozen members in attendance listened to prayers, they sat beneath a projected image of the seven imprisoned leaders — an optometrist, a social worker, an industrialist, a factory owner, a teacher, an agricultural engineer, a psychologist, fathers and mothers, husbands and wives. Knowing the history of Bahais in Iran, members said they dare to hope while focusing on creating awareness of their current plight.

“What we all hope for … is that the world will become a more loving and unified place,” Banani said. “And that’s the purpose of our faith, that is our faith.”

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