By Elizabeth Hill
Arizona Daily Wildcat
The prison guard said to her, "If you deny your faith, you will be free."
After two months of interrogation, with her three-year-old son in her lap, Olya Roohizadegan was asked again, "Are you a Baha'i?"
If she said she was not, she could live. If she said she was, she would die. "He (the prison guard) told me, 'your choice, death or life. Choose,'" she said.
In the early '80s, Roohizadegan was one of many Baha'is the Muslim-controlled Iranian government was in the process of arresting and sending to prison.
Roohizadegan spoke Tuesday night on the University of Arizona campus and at the Plaza Hotel. She is touring the country in support of her book, Olya's Story.
It is the story of Roohizadegan, her friends and family and the persecution they endured in prison.
Repression of Baha'is was an ongoing process in Iran, but the situation became worse in 1980.
In her book, Roohizadegan said, "At the beginning of 1980, a new stage in the repression of the Baha'i community was initiated by the government. A proclamation was made banning Baha'is from government and teaching jobs, and Baha'i children were suspended first from universities, then from schools.
"It gave the Baha'is of Iran an advanced warning of what lay ahead," she said.
When she was arrested, they took her from her whole family. Her son grasped the car she was driven away in.
She said, however, "In spite of everything, my heart was filled with indescribable joy; the thought that I was being arrested for my faith brought me a strange sense of fulfillment."
She was one of 90 Baha'is arrested in 1982.
The persecution of the Baha'is by Iranian Muslims stems from the Muslims' denial of faiths that believe there was a prophet after Mohammed. Orthodox Muslims believe he is the last prophet, Roohizadegan said.
But Baha'ullah, the Baha'i founder, is considered by the Baha'i to be the most recent of messengers sent by God, she said.
The prisoners were "interrogated" daily, Roohizadegan said, meaning they were blindfolded, faced against a wall, had a gun pointed in their back and asked to renounce their faith.
During the lecture, she held up pictures of her friends who were tortured and told their stories.
She spoke of her friend Tuba, a former teacher who was kept in solitary confinement for 55 days. During this
time Tuba was beaten with a wire cable so badly that when they finally released her, she couldn't walk.
Tuba was hanged four months after her release from solitary confinement. At age 51, she was one of the oldest prisoners.
During that last four months, Tuba told Roohizadegan that she wished to go to see her daughter in the United States.
Roohizadegan recently fulfilled that dream for Tuba. She went to see Tuba's daughter, who said to her, "I have just seen my mother."
Mona, a 17-year-old prisoner and former student, was the youngest friend of Roohizadegan's in the prison.
Before she was arrested she was forced to visit her father while he was being tortured. She was also forced to watch him be hanged.
Mona and her father were offered money and material items if they denied their faith. They refused. Mona was eventuallly hanged.
Both of these women, Roohizadegan explained, were asked by the guards, "Why are you educated?" They were educated because in the Baha'i faith women and men are equal, she said.
"She sacrificed her life for peace, unity and love," Roohizadegan said.
"They (the guards) said to us during interrogations, 'we will torture you and kill you, and nobody will know what happened,'" she said.
Roohizadegan made a promise to her friends that if she got out alive, she would tell the world what happened.
She was freed just before she thought she was going to die. A guard called her husband and asked for all of his money and belongings in exchange for her release. Her husband didn't have any money because the government had taken it all, Roohizadegan said. He told the guard that he could have the deed to their house.
The guard accepted, and she was released.
However, her release did not last long. Her Muslim neighbor called and told her that they were coming again to arrest her.
Roohizadegan, her husband, and her three-year-old son spent the next six days and nights escaping through the mountains of Pakistan.
Temple Black, chairperson of the UA Baha'i club said, "She's fulfulling her promise to her friends."
Black wants people to know, "This isn't the Middle Ages; this is now. This happened in all of our lifetimes."
"We want her visit to convey to what extreme other countries will go," she said.
Roohizadegan said, "I'm so happy because my promise to them came true. God helped me, and I'm here to tell the world. Their deaths were not for nothing."
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