Shahla Howitz of Modesto knows all about religious discrimination.
Raised in the Baha'i faith in her native Iran, she came to this country with three of her sisters when she was 25 to escape the oppression.
"They didn't like me in Iran because they don't give the Baha'i faith freedom," she said. "They say that prophecy ends with Islam, Mohammed. They say we are fake. But we say no.
"They (Iranian officials) put the Baha'is in jail or kill them. My father was in jail for one year just because of his religion. Baha'i children there cannot go to public schools. Their youth cannot go to any universities in Iran. The government says, 'If you're Baha'i, you can't work.' "
The 47-year-old said things in the Muslim country are bad for other religions as well, but that even Jews and Christians can find work and go to college.
"I personally think Christianity and (Judaism) are old religions, so the Muslims aren't so hard on them," she said. "Baha'i is the new religion.
"When Iran was fighting with Iraq back in 1987, the Baha'is were sending their youth to the war, too, to serve their country. Baha'is are doing everything to listen to the government, but the government doesn't accept them."
It's not just Iran, either. Throughout the Middle East, restrictions have been placed on Baha'is. In Egypt, for example, Christians, Jews and Muslims could all get mandatory ID cards needed to enroll in a university, start a job and open a bank account; Baha'is could not.
Howitz well remembers the night her father was taken away.
"He had a car dealership in Iran, and the soldiers just took it from him," she said. "They came to our house and took my father, and they kept him for one year. They took personal belongings from us. We couldn't live there anymore. But they wouldn't let us leave. So we went to Pakistan and lived there for two years before we got our visa to come to America."
Life here, she said, is so much nicer.
"It's such a freedom," Howitz said. "I can be a member of the (Baha'i) assembly and no one puts me in jail. In Iran, I couldn't dare do this. Here, we can have any activities that we want to. It's impossible to compare it. It feels so good.
"I want the public to know that the Baha'i religion doesn't harm anyone. We just praise God. We believe in Jesus. We believe in Mohammed. I love all of them. We don't harm anybody; I don't understand why they harm us."
Besides her dad, she said there was a close friend living next door to her family in Iran.
"They put him in jail for two years and then they killed him. His biggest sin was his Baha'i (faith). Anywhere we live, in any country, we're supposed to obey the government. In Iran, we obey them there, too. But they don't like us."
After moving to this country, she met her husband, Timothy Howitz, at a Baha'i gathering for singles in Santa Cruz. They were married three months later and have three sons: Roi, 17; Rai, 15; and Rian, 5.
The Howitzes attend the Modesto Baha'i Center -- only those 21 years or older are allowed to become members -- while their sons regularly attend the feasts held every 19 days.
The rest of Shahla Howitz's family -- father, mother and six siblings -- all eventually emigrated to this country. Most live in the Modesto area.
Baha'u'llah, a native of Persia, announced in 1863 that he was God's messenger for the age. His teachings and sacred writings are the basis of the Baha'i faith. He claimed his divine mission was to bring about the spiritual rebirth and the unity of mankind. He promised that this would lead to the establishment of permanent world peace and to the kingdom of God on Earth.
Baha'u'llah proclaimed that God sends divine messengers with teachings that enable humanity to know and worship God. These great manifestations, which have appeared throughout history at intervals of about 500 to 1,000 years, bring human civilization to ever higher levels of spiritual and material advancement. Baha'u'llah is revered as the latest in this long line of divine messengers, which has included Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Krishna, Buddha and Zoroaster.
Baha'u'llah was imprisoned, tortured and exiled, but continued to urge emperors, kings and other national leaders to reconcile and pursue world peace. He died in 1892.
The purpose of life is to know and worship God, to acquire virtues, to promote the oneness of humankind and to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization.
All humanity was created by one God and is part of one human race.
Work performed in the spirit of service is a form of worship.
The soul, created at the moment of conception, is destined by God to reach the afterlife, where it will continue to progress until it attains the presence of God.
Daily prayer and communion with God;
High moral principles, including trustworthiness, chastity and honesty;
Independent investigation of truth;
A life dedicated to the service of humanity;
Fellowship with the followers of all religions;
Avoidance of excessive materialism, partisan politics, backbiting, alcohol, drugs and gambling.
-- Source: http://bahai.us
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at 578-2012 or firstname.lastname@example.org.