Health workers are the front line in our defense against the coronavirus pandemic – including hundreds of Iranian Baha’i doctors and nurses. But they are not in Iran; instead, they live in countries around the world, treating their patients, where they are admired and praised by the people and governments of the countries where they live. The one country where they cannot do their work is Iran.
Many of these doctors and nurses – who studied and served in Iran – lost their jobs after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. They were expelled from the universities and their public sector jobs, barred from practicing medicine, jailed and tortured, and a considerable number of them perished on the gallows or in front of firing squads.
The crime of these Baha’i doctors, nurses and other health workers was their faith in a religion that the rulers of the Islamic Republic believe is a “deviant” faith.
In a new series of articles, called “For the Love of Their Country,” IranWire tells the stories of some of these Iranian Baha’i doctors and nurses. In this installment you will read the story of Dr. Hossein Naji, a leading cardiologist and a Baha'i, who disappeared in August 1980 along with 10 other Baha'is.
If you know a Baha’i health worker and have a first-hand story of his or her life, let IranWire know.
Hossein Naji was born to a Baha'i family in Tehran in 1928. His father, Haj Gholamhossein, had died before he was born, and Hossein never knew his father. Haj Gholamhossein was a cleric and gave regular sermons and lessons in the city of Tafresh in northeastern Iran. But he converted to the Baha'i faith many years before his son Hossein was born. The Baha’i community has no clergy; Gholamhossein therefore removed his Shia clerical robes, and was no longer a cleric.
Hossein lost his mother when he was 12 years old and was raised by his older sister Mohtaram. And although Hossein grew up an orphan, he never allowed this shortcoming to be an obstacle to his progress.
He graduated from high school with honors, and because he could not afford to continue his education, he enrolled in the army to pay for his studies. He was later able to go to medical school and in the sixth year of his medical studies, at the age of 24, he married Vajdieh Rezvani, a Baha'i from Kermanshah. The couple had a daughter, Ramona, and a son Ramin.
Dr. Hossein Naji always sought new opportunities to expand his medical knowledge. He was determined to go abroad to continue his education and to take a speciality. But he could not afford the trip, and army officials refused to provide scholarships because he was a Baha'i. Finally, after several years of service in the army as a doctor, he succeeded in persuading army authorities to grant a scholarship and was sent to Britain for four years.
Becoming a Cardiologist and Introducing Angioplasty to Iran
Dr. Naji studied at Imperial College in London from 1957 to 1961 and returned to Iran after four years with a degree in cardiology. He left as a student but he returned as an expert and he immediately began treating heart patients in the army and hospitals. Dr. Naji was the first cardiologist to introduce angioplasty to the Iranian medical community.
A year and a half after his return to Iran, he decided to go to the United States to further develop his expertise. Dr. Naji moved to New York with his family; during his two years in the US, he studied and worked in a hospital, and in 1964, after completing his studies, he returned to Iran with a degree in heart disease.
His expertise and fame drew people to his private clinic on Elizabeth Boulevard, now known as Keshavarz Boulevard, from across Iran; his office was always full of patients.
Misaghieh Hospital (a hospital established by a Baha’i, now called Mustafa Khomeini Hospital) was Dr. Naji’s favorite hospital, where he treated and operated on his patients. Dr. Naji, with his vast and cutting-edge knowledge, turned the hospital’s cardiac ward into one of the most modern in Iran. But another reason he admitted patients to this hospital was that it also provided facilities for Iran’s poor. Dr. Naji was able to treat his patients without worrying about their financial situation.
Retirement and Revolution
Dr. Hossein Naji retired in 1978, with the rank of colonel, after 32 years of service in the army. Despite having the necessary experience to be a brigadier-general, he refused to accept the title. His daughter Ramona says: “The main reason father kept the title of colonel was that Dr. Ayadi, doctor to the Shah, had told him that he wanted to introduce him as his replacement. But the Shah's doctor needed to have the rank of brigadier-general. Father was not interested in this position. He retired with the rank of colonel so that he would not have to accept the position of physician to the court.”
Hossein Naji was also a respected figure in the Baha’i community. He was elected as a member of Tehran’s Spiritual Assembly and the National Spiritual Assembly of Iran.
The pressures on the Baha'i community in Iran increased after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Suspicious killings of Baha'is that had begun a year earlier were increased all around the country.
One of the first properties confiscated from the Baha’is in the first months of the Revolution, without a court order, was the Misaghieh Hospital. It was renamed to Martyr Mostafa Khomeini Hospital. All Baha'is working in hospitals were expelled from their jobs and Baha'i doctors were prevented from working at hospitals. Dr. Naji was one of those banned from continuing his activities at Misaghieh.
Dr. Naji was a member of the National Spiritual Assembly that year; as a representative of the Baha'i community in Iran, he was responsible for pursuing problems faced by the community and contacting relevant officials.
A few months after the victory of the Islamic Revolution, Colonel Dr. Naji traveled to Germany for two weeks to visit his children. He knew this was to be his last visit with them. Friends and family asked him not to return to Iran due to the situation facing the Baha’is and because his life, as a member of the National Spiritual Assembly, was in danger. But he refused, saying that the Baha'is put their trust in him when they elected him to pursue their rights at just such a time.
The Arrest of Mrs. Naji
After returning to Iran, unknown individuals stormed his home to arrest him, and when they did not find him, they beat his wife, Mrs. Naji, and took her to an unknown location. Vajdieh Naji was held hostage in Evin Prison for 17 days to force her husband to turn himself in.
Dr. Hossein Naji left no stone unturned to free his wife. A letter from him, describing the account of those days, has been provided to IranWire. Excerpts from the contents of this letter are being published here for the first time.
“I called my colleague, Dr. Masoumi, a cardiologist who was treating Khomeini at Tehran Heart Center. When I explained what had happened to me and my wife, he got very upset. He was especially surprised by the kidnapping of Dr. Davoodi and Mr. Roshani. He said he would talk to Ayatollah Khomeini's son, Haj Ahmad, and gave me his phone number. I called Haj Ahmad and told him that I was ready to be executed as a Baha'i in front of the hospital where his father was being treated, but I was not willing to surrender to unknown groups. I also said that I was religious according to my beliefs and obedient to the government. Therefore he should name the officials to whom I should turn myself in. Haj Ahmad replied very kindly that he had heard from the doctor about me and my high scientific qualifications, and said that I should not talk about this with anyone until he had looked into it. He said he would call the Islamic Revolution Committee in Tehran and asked me to call him again in an hour and a half. It turned out later that his contact with the Islamic Revolution Committee had a very negative effect because the Committee was made up of our [the Baha’is] main enemies. ... The next day [February 8, 1980], I made lots of phone calls to my colleagues in various hospitals and told them about the atrocities that the unknown assailants, in the name of Islam, were inflicting on the Baha'i community. I sent the same telegram to the Attorney General on Saturday, adding that I was looking for a legal place to turn myself in.”
Dr. Naji wrote that, shortly after taking his wife, agents returned to their home and took all the jewellery, cash, personal documents and photo albums.
“I went to visit President Banisadr together with another person ... [Banidsadr said]: At a time when Imam Khomeini has a heart problem, you Baha'is have made up the story of the cardiologist and his wife so that you can use it to your advantage. They say that the woman attacked the officers with boiling water.” I replied that the cardiologist was me and that woman was my wife. ... I told him that the boiling water incident was just an excuse to arrest her. That surprised Banisadr. He looked at me and changed the subject ... From this meeting we came to the conclusion that the policy of the government to deal with the Baha'is was completely different from those of the the anti-Baha’i groups [pre-revolutionary Islamic propaganda groups] that dominated the Revolution Committee in Tehran. These organizations have blank warrants signed by the Attorney-General; they attack the Baha'is whenever they want, and write their own verdicts on the blank papers. Through the influence of my non-Baha'i friends, Qudusi, the Attorney-General requested [details on] my wife's case and signed her release order. He even expressed his surprise at my wife's arrest. It is noteworthy that my wife's release order was in contrast with the wishes of the Revolution Committee officials. For this reason, after signing the sentence, it took several days for the decision to be executed and for my wife to be released. I am sure that the president's phone call with Mr. Qudusi was effective for her release. ... The National Spiritual Assembly feels that, since the Council of the Islamic Revolution has discussed our case and decided to protect the Baha'is, they must have made this decision under the influence of Haj Ahmad.”
Dr. Naji's report concluded with optimism that the Iranian government would change its attitude toward the Baha’is. But the pressure on the community was mounting.
On August 21, 1980, the National Spiritual Assembly held a meeting at the home of a Baha'i to discuss the situation of imprisoned Baha'is in Yazd and Hamedan. At around 4pm, a group of gunmen stormed the meeting. They took Dr. Hossein Naji and ten other Baha'is who were attending the meeting with them. No trace of them was ever found, and no security, judicial or military institutions took the responsibility for detaining these Baha'is.
Read other articles in this series: