Saying a prayer for an Auburn woman journeying into a land of toxic theocractic rule

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I’m not given to resorting to prayer to solve problems. But I certainly will be saying one for Parivash Rohani, an Auburn resident who left on a journey to her native Iran on Friday to visit her aged parents, who she hasn’t seen for 35 years, and to assist her ill mother.

It’s not just that her destination is an unpredictable Middle Eastern country with turbulent politics, that there’s been bad blood between the U.S. and Iran since the Iranian Revolution and American Hostage Crisis of 1979, or that Iran resents the United States for spearheading international sanctions to thwart its uranium enrichment program and nuclear ambitions..

What really concerns me is capsulized in the State Department’s warning about travel to Iran: “Dual national Iranian-American citizens may encounter difficulty in departing Iran.” The bulletin further notes, “Iranian authorities also have unjustly detained or imprisoned U.S. citizens on various charges, including espionage and posing a threat to national security.”

If that’s not worrisome enough, Parivash is of the Baha’i faith, and the State Department warns that Iran’s government, a conservative Shi’a Islamist theocracy, represses certain minority religious groups, including the Baha’i.

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I first got to know Parivash about 20 years ago, when she began caring for my father-in-law in a nursing home. She and her husband, Nasser, are kind, gentle and welcoming people as well as devoted parents to their four children.

It’s fitting that they are followers of Baha’i, a religion that espouses the spiritual unity of all humankind and emphasizes world peace, the elimination of prejudice, equality between men and women, and the importance of family, education, work and service to others.

The faith exudes a serenity that is tangibly expressed in the Shrine of the Bab in Haifa, Israel — an aesthetically soothing, domed structure, backed by 19 garden terraces that stretch more than half a mile from the base to the summit of Mt. Carmel.

Religious tolerance, as advocated by Baha’i, is a hard sell, particularly in the Middle East, where spiritual unity has historically come at the point of a sword or the muzzle of a gun. In fact, Baha’i orginated in mid-19th century Iran (Persia), where its early followers were persecuted and tortured by the authorities.

The government and internal politics of present-day Iran are complex, to say the least, with several factions wielding and jockeying for power, including Shi’a clerics, elected politicians and the Revolutionary Guards. To be sure, the country has at least some of the trappings of democracy and, on this score, it’s probably a freer place to live than, say, Syria or Saudi Arabia.

At its core, however, it’s still a theocracy – a government controlled by entrenched clerics and guided by principles which are often rigid and intolerant of either secularism or any religion other than the established one.

The Supreme Leader, a cleric, holds overarching power. Though Iranians elect a president (currently a cleric as well) by popular vote, candidates can run for office only after their credentials have been vetted by a Guardian Council of clerics for fidelity to the ideals of the Islamic Revolution. And half the Council’s 12 members are selected by the Supreme Leader, who also appoints and directs the nation’s military and police commanders and names the head of the court system. The courts are staffed by judges trained in Shariyah (Islamic) law.

The marriage of religion and political power, such as in Iran, is invariably toxic. History has demonstrated time and again that theocracy turns out badly for both government and religion, leading to religious wars, persecution of nonbelievers, cynicism, corruption, economic stagnation and collapse.

After all, how is it possible to have free dialogue and constructive change in a state where there is only one correct, immutable answer, handed down from a divine being and enforced by temporal authorities who act in his name and benefit personally from their status as his representatives on earth?

The kingships of ancient Israel, the Renaissance Papacy from about 1470 to 1530, the Spanish-Hapsburg Empire from 1492 through the late 1600s and the Ottoman Turkish Empire from the late 1600s to early 1900s, are but a few examples of such unhealthy theocratic states.

Our country’s founders tried to foreclose theocracy through the First Amendment to Constitution, ratified in 1791, which guaranteed freedom of worship to all and prevented the establishment of a state religion. In a letter written in 1802, Thomas Jefferson described these provisions as a “wall of separation between Church & State.”

Yet, as recently as the administration of President George W. Bush, the GOP flirted with the idea of a theocratic presidency. Kevin Phillips, author of “American Theocracy,” former Republican Party voting strategist. and authority on religion’s influence on American politics, has pointed out how Bush’s embrace of right-wing Christian fundamentalist beliefs led to dangerous, religiously-motivated policies, including limiting of public funding for stem-cell research, denying the existence of global warming, dismantling environmental regulations, and justifying waging war in the Middle East by veiled references to apocalyptic biblical prophecies.

The ruling clerics of Iran probably pray for Allah to preserve and protect their Islamic state. I can only pray that God grant Parivash Rohani a peaceful trip and a safe return.

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