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. Soleiman Berjis Taelim, a Baha'i Kashan, assassinated in 1950 by eight Muslim extremists who were later acquited for the murder.
If you know a Baha’i health worker and have a first-hand story of his or her life, let IranWire know.
On February 3, 1950, an elderly Baha’i doctor named Soleiman Berjis was stabbed 81 times in the city of Kashan by followers of the fanatical religious group Fedayeen of Islam. He died from his wounds. Four years earlier, on March 11, 1946, members of the same group had assassinated Ahmad Kasravi, a notable historian and religious reformer, in the court chamber where he was defending himself against anti-Islamic charges.
Courts acquitted the assassins in both cases despite the fact that they had confessed to these murders. The acquittals has left lasting stain on the judicial record of pre-Revolution Iran.
Who Was Dr. Soleiman Berjis?
Soleiman Berjis was born in 1897 in the city of Kashan in today’s Isfahan province. His father, Hakim (“Physician”) Yaghoub, was a prominent doctor in Kashan. Dr. Yaghoub had successfully treated the governor of Kashan prompting Iran’s Qajar-era king to bestow on him the honorary title of Shams’ul-Hokama, the “Sun of Physicians,” and while he was at court he adopted the family name Berjis from the old Persian word for the planet Jupiter as seen in a calligraphy exercise by Fath-Ali Shah Qajar.
Hakim Yaghoub was born to a Jewish family. He studied medicine with his uncle, Hakim Noor Mohammad, in Tehran. During this time he socialized with some Baha’is and eventually converted to the Baha’i faith. His son Soleiman, meanwhile, finished his primary education in Kashan, in a school named Vahdat-e Bashar, or “Unity of Humankind,” founded by the city’s Baha’is which was famous for teachers well-versed in English and French.
Medicine was the family’s ancestral profession and even today most of its members are engaged in this profession. Soleiman also followed the family tradition. He left for Tehran when he was 19 to study medicine at Dar ul-Funun, Iran’s modern university, established in 1851, and held internships in government hospitals in Tehran. Soleiman later returned to Kashan and began working at father’s clinic.
Known as Hakim (“Doctor”) Soleiman in Kashan, he treated poor patients, and became known for dispensing medicine to lower-income patients for free. Whenever Soleiman was informed that a patient was bed-ridden and could not come to the clinic, he would pick up his bag and rush to the patient’s bedside, regardless of the distance or whether the patient could afford treatment. But his readiness to go anywhere to help his patients eventually allowed his assassins to trap him.
Dr. Berjis’ high reputation and popularity among the people of Kashan, and especially the poor, had made him a target of hatred and slander by Muslim extremists. He eloquence and mastery of the Bible and the Quran was another reason why he was harassed more forcefully than other Baha’is in Kashan.
Contributing to the escalation of the harassment of the Baha’is were the anti-Baha’i sermons of Sheikh Mohammad Khalesizadeh , an extremist clergymen born in Kadhimiya, a township north of Baghdad that Shia Muslims consider holy. He was on good terms with Ahmad Shah, the last king of the Qajar dynasty, who ruled Iran from 1909 to 1925, and met him several times. But when Shah Reza Pahlavi overthrew the Qajar dynasty, in 1925, Khalesizadeh became one of his fiercest critics and spent years in exile. His exile ended in 1941 when the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union occupied Iran and sent Reza Shah into his own exile. In 1943 Khalesizadeh moved to Kashan and lived there for some years.
Calling for Murder from the Pulpit
The main target of Khalesizadeh’s attacks against the Baha’is was Dr. Soleiman Berjis. He openly called for his murder from the pulpit. “Take Dr. Berjis who is the boss of the Baha’is from the clinic, and kill him. He is an infidel and a heathen,” Khalesizadeh would say. “He is unclean.”
A second figure who played an undeniable role in the assassination of Dr. Berjis was the well-known preacher, Ali Akbar Torbati, from Qom. He was a trusted friend of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Boroujerdi, the leading Shia religious authority in Iran from 1947 to his death in 1961. In 1947 Ayatollah Boroujerdi sent Ali Akbar Torbati to Kashan and, from the moment he arrived, he used his pulpit to incite the people against Baha’is. Torbati called them “corrupt” and said killing Baha’is was a legitimate act. Powerful loudspeakers had been set up around town for the people to hear Torbati’s sermons. He and other preachers prohibited people from visiting Dr. Berjis’s clinic. Most were afraid of the wrath of the fanatics and stopped going to his clinic – enormously hurting Dr. Berjis’s income.
Torbati and some members of Kashan’s Society for the Promotion of Islam founded a new group, the Islamic Missionary Society, aimed at taking concrete action against “deviants” from Islam. This was the start of an organized campaign against the Baha’i community in Kashan; and from that time, there was talk that Dr. Berjis may be assassinated. The eight young men who ultimately did assassinate him were all devotees of Sheikh Khalesizadeh and members of the Islamic Missionary Society.
Afraid for their safety, a group of Baha’is went to Major Fatemi, commander of Kashan police, but he assured them there was no need for the Baha’is to worry and said they were not in any danger. Later, in a letter to General Fazlollah Zahedi, commander of the national police, the Baha’i National Spiritual Assembly, the community’s governing body, informed General Zahedi that both Major Fatemi and Captain Ali Naraghi, head of the Criminal Investigation Department of Kashan police, had been secretly in league with Torbati and had encouraged him in his anti-Baha’i tirades.
At 8:30am on Friday, February 3, 1950, two individuals by the names of Abbas Tavassoli and Ali Naghipoor rushed into Dr. Berjis’s clinic, past queuing patients, and pleaded with him to accompany them to an elderly woman who was their relative. For 30 years, Dr. Berjis had treated patients at the city’s Health Bureau in the mornings and at his clinic in the afternoon; now he spent his full working day at his clinic.
Yielding to their pleadings, Dr. Berjis asked the forgiveness of his patients at the clinic and set out for the home of the elderly woman in the company of the two messengers. Their destination was the remote neighborhood of Kalhor Darband in Kashan. The three entered an alley and stopped in front the residence of a cleric named Sheikh Bagher Nami where a Shia religious ritual was in progress. Six other men emerged from the house and told Dr. Berjis that he must repent of his Baha’i beliefs and join the ritual. He ignored them and turned to leave. The eight young men started beating Dr. Berjis, striking him with whatever they could find, from stones to sticks and then knives. The attackers pulled Dr. Berjis, already half-dead, to the upper floor of the house and threw him down from a five-meter height to the ground. But still they did not stop. One of them, by the name of Mohammad Rasoulzadeh, pulled out a knife, sat on Dr. Berjis’s chest and started mutilating the body. The coroner later reported that the doctor had been stabbed 81 times.
A large crowd of onlookers had gathered though nobody tried to help Dr. Berjis. Rasoulzadeh cleaned his bloodied hands by rubbing them with snow, leaving the scene with the other assailants, chanting “There is one god and no other.” Four of the assassins went directly to the police, presented themselves as members of the Islamic Missionary Society, announcing they had just assassinated a Baha’i. The other four were later arrested during an investigation into the murder.
One of the assassins, Mohammad Emami, later claimed in an interview he had been the one who had killed Dr. Berjis. “Rasoulzadeh and others had no sharp knives and he has been unduly given credit for killing Dr. Berjis,” he said in the interview. “He had no weapon except a thin and dull-edged penknife that bent after a few strikes and became useless. But I had a [sturdy] dagger and all the effective stabs that killed [Dr. Berjis] were inflicted by me using this weapon. Eventually I grabbed his neck and slashed an artery. Blood poured out over my hands and my clothes. I cleaned my hands in the snow ... and went to the police with six of my companions.”
Some sources attribute Dr. Berjis’s assassination to the group Fedayeen of Islam under the leadership of Navab Safavi. Supporting this assumption is that fact that some of the assailants, such as Rasoulzadeh and the cleric Gholamreza Golesorkhi, were members of Fedayeen of Islam and, according to Golesorkhi’s memoirs, Navab Safavi was in Kashan when the assassination took place. Safavi himself burst into the courtroom during the trial of Dr. Berjis’s killers to boost their morale while he himself was wanted by the police. After disrupting the court proceedings, and a scuffle with the guards, Safavi and his companions escaped.
Once the assailants had been arrested, and at the behest of Sheikh Mohammad Gharavi Kashani, the city’s Sharia judge, a group of his followers prepared themselves to attack the prison to free the defendants. A large number of traditional merchants in Kashan also went on strike to protest the arrests. Mohammad Taghi Damghani, Kashan’s chief prosecutor, completed the case against the eight defendants and sent them to Tehran.
All eight confessed to the murder of Dr. Soleiman Berjis and insisted they had done their duty according to Sharia law.
The Shah’s Government Capitulates to the Clergy
Major Shia clergymen, such as the ayatollahs Boroujerdi, Mohammad Behbahani, Abolghasem Kashani and others, came out in support of the assassins, praising them as men of faith, and demanding their release. “Ten of us seminary students ... went to Grand Ayatollah Boroujerdi and talked to him about [the killing]. He ordered each of us to go a city and to force the clerics in that city to send telegrams to defend these gentlemen,” wrote Sheikh Mahmoud Salahian.
Ayatollah Boroujerdi himself wrote a letter to the rabid anti-Baha’i preacher Mohammad Taghi Falsafi and urged him to support the release of the assassins. “Eight people together have killed a Baha’i and of course if these eight are harmed ... not only will Islam be weakened, it will also harm the interests of the country.”
The Baha’i National Spiritual Assembly wrote to the Shah, the prime minister and the commander of the National Police, asking for justice. But, in a letter to Prime Minister Mohammad Sa'ed, dated February 21, 1950, Interior Minister Amir Asadollah Alam encouraged him to silence the Baha’is. “For some time now correspondence from the Baha’i community have been officially received, numbered and registered by government ministries and offices, and this official treatment of the letters has enraged believing Muslims ... The [Baha’is’] brazen behavior is against the national interest so it is necessary to do away with these associations as soon as possible.”
In another letter, on February 27, Alam once again asked the prime minister to heed the telegrams sent by the clergy calling for the release of the defendants and expressing their hatred of the Baha’is. And the Shah’s chief of staff asked Sa’ed to inform the Shah of actions he had taken regarding the interior minister’s letter. But, in his reply to both the interior minister and the king’s chief of staff, the prime minister said the “murderers must be prosecuted according to the law.”
Silencing the Victims
A few weeks after this reply, Sa’ed was dismissed as prime minister and replaced by Ali Mansour. In a letter to the interior ministry a few days after his appointment, on March 23, 1950, Mansour wrote that “the letters sent by the Baha’i community to government offices must not be treated as official letters or answered. Demonstrations and provocations by such elements in the capital or other cities must be prevented and the instigators must be prosecuted.”
With this order, the plaintiffs and the defendants exchanged places and government entities stopped paying attention to calls for justice by the Baha’is. This policy continued throughout Mansour’s premiership, which lasted only a few months, but continued after his time in office.
On August 5, 1950, Branch 2 of Tehran Criminal Court started the trial of the eight charged with the murder of Dr. Soleiman Berjis. The trial ended on September 13. Ahmad Jeddi presided over a panel of four other judges by the names of Javad Harir-Foroush, Mohammad Hasan Khatunabadi, Abdolhossein Taleghani, and Lotfali Bigdeli. The defendants were listed as Mohammad Rasoulzadeh, Ahmad Emami, Abbas Tavassoli, Ali Naghipoor, Reza Golesorkhi, Javad Doroodgar, Mohammad Raeeszadeh and Hossein Soleimani.
Bazaar merchants had hired 13 prominent Tehran lawyers, such as Sadegh Sarmad Arsalan Khalatbary, to represent the eight defendants. The Berjis victim had only one lawyer, by the name of Razi, who quit after only two court sessions following threats by the Fedayeen of Islam. During the trial, Ayatollah Boroujerdi and Ayatollah Kashani put pressure on the Shah to release the defendants, so much so that General Ali Razmara, the new prime minister, personally asked the minister of justice to acquit the defendants to soothe public anger.
Once again, Navab Safavi and other members of the Fedayeen of Islam broke into the courtroom and disrupted the proceedings. “Your brothers are alive and the court can do nothing,” Safavi shouted after he broke into the courtroom. (Some months later, in March 1951, Khalil Tahmasebi, a member of the Fedayeen, would assassinate Prime Minister Razmara.)
Finally, on September 17, the court acquitted the eight charged with the assassination of Dr. Soleiman Berjis. After they were released, Rasoulzadeh and his accomplices were taken to the home of Ayatollah Kashani where they received a warm welcome. Two days later they returned to Kashan and entered the town amid celebrations.
Dr. Soleiman Berjis was a dedicated and caring physician and highly popular among the poor in Kashan. It was exactly his good name and popularity that made the religious zealots kill him – only because he did not belong to their brand of religion. His murder and the acquittal of his killers happened in the twentieth century: it was no different from a medieval persecution.
Read other articles in this series: