The persecution of the Baha'is in Iran
Jesse Richards - December 7, 1998

Since the current Islamic regime rose to power in 1979, Iranian members of the Baha'i faith have been consistently and forcefully denied education. Unable to attend or teach at schools, colleges and universities, Baha'is struggle to educate themselves and their children in any way possible. "My little brother was not allowed to attend elementary school," said Ramin, 32, who now lives in the U.S. "He had to attend night classes with adults. I myself was thrown out of three different high schools simply because I refused to sign a card saying I was a Muslim."

This denial of basic rights to education reached a climax in late September, when a secret Baha'i university was closed by the government. Iranian security officials raided some 500 homes and buildings owned or rented by Baha'is, according to an Oct. 29 article in The New York Times. The officials confiscated material and arrested dozens of people, including 36 teachers, the article said. Textbooks on such subjects as dentistry and accounting were confiscated, according to an Associated Press article. None of the material seized dealt with religious or political subjects.

Started in 1987 in response to the banning of Baha'is from universities in Iran, The Baha'i Institute for Higher Education had been operating underground, although, according to The New York Times, some people in the government had full knowledge of its presence. The Institute had nearly 1,000 students and scores of volunteer faculty members. Professors at Indiana University provided course materials and curriculum advice, and Americans on visits to Iran would stuff their suitcases with textbooks, according to the Times. The Institute grew to 10 areas of study, with some 145 students graduating with bachelor's degrees, which were sometimes accepted despite the school's lack of recognition.

This attack on the Baha'i community is the most recent event in a history of persecution. In the past 19 years, Baha'is have been denied access to education, marriage, and work. "Before then, we weren't an official religion, but we were tolerated. Many Baha'is held key positions in the government," Ramin said. He wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation against relatives still in Iran.

"In 1979, when I was 13, our whole world changed. The universities were closed for all. Six years later when they reopened, no Baha'is were allowed, not even into elementary or high school. Within two months my parents were fired from their work They burned our house." Ramin, like many other Iranian Baha'is, escaped the country and moved to the U.S. He said that the Ayatollah claimed to ‘tolerate religious minorities', but that the Baha'is were not included in that group. Ramin said that his group of refugees, which included a pregnant woman, was forced to ride camels bareback and hike across the countryside. They were shot at while attempting to cross the border. The group finally escaped into Pakistan in late 1986, and the baby survived.

The persecution that Ramin describes is still going on in Iran today. In a press release from the Regional Baha'i Council for the Northeastern States, an anonymous Iranian student said, "I did not apply to college because I knew there would not be any chance for admission. But my cousin did. And they called her and said, ‘You could go to college if you say you are Muslim and if you put your photograph in the newspaper and write and say publicly that you are Muslim."

The Baha'i faith is Iran's largest religious minority. It claims about 6 million members worldwide and 340,000 in Iran's population of 60 million, according to the Washington Post. Since the birth of the religion in the 1840s in Iran, Muslim hierarchy there has singled out adherents for persecution, calling their beliefs heretical, according to an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The Post says that under the domination of the Shiite Muslims in control of the country, Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians at least enjoy certain protections. However, "as followers of a religion that emerged after Islam, [Baha'is] are viewed as particularly noxious apostates."

Baha'is believe there is one religion and one God, who sends messengers to Earth periodically. Those have included Moses, Christ, Buddha, Krishna, Mohammed, and, most recently, Baha'u'llah, the prophet-founder of the faith. Imprisoned throughout his life, Baha'u'llah and his followers were banished to Baghdad and across the Middle East throughout the nineteenth century. The faith settled in Israel, and its administrative center is now in Haifa. Central principles of the Baha'i faith include full equality of the sexes, universal education, and the elimination of prejudice.

The closing of the university comes at a time when pressure is already on Iran due to recent persecutions of the Baha'is. On July 21, Ruhollah Rowhani, a 52-year-old medical supply salesman and father of two, was hanged in Iran on charges of converting a Muslim women to the Baha'i Faith, a charge that the woman denied. Rowhani is allegedly the first Baha'i executed in Iran in six years. According to a press release from the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Court in Tehran at first denied the execution, calling Rowhani "an imaginary individual." Iranian authorities later acknowledged the execution but stated that Rowhani had been executed for crimes against national security, the press release said.

According to the Associated Press, The State Department condemned Iran, saying that it saw no evidence Rowhani was accorded due process of law. The White House also issued a statement conveying their condolences to Rowhani's family. On Oct. 1, the State Department's spokesperson, James Rubin, stated that the death sentences of two more Iranian Baha'is had been confirmed.

In 1993, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights published a confidential Iranian government document which lists plans and actions against the Baha'i community. This has become known as "The Baha'i Question" document and can be found in full at the Internet address:

The documents says that "The government's dealings with them [the Baha'is] must be in such a way that their progress and development are blocked. ... They can be enrolled in schools provided they have not identified themselves as Baha'is. Preferably, they should be enrolled in schools which have a strong and imposing religious ideology."

It goes on to list that "they must be expelled from universities" and to "deny them employment if they are Baha'is." Perhaps the document's most ambitious claim is that "A plan must be devised to confront and destroy their cultural roots outside the country."

"Executing people for the practice of their religious faith is contrary to the most fundamental human rights principles," the White House said in response to the university's closing, according to an Oct. 25 editorial in the Washington Post. "How can such a self-evident principle even need to be restated?" asked the editorial.

A statement by the President, released on November 14 for the International Day of Prayer, said, "I want to reaffirm my administration's strong commitment to religious freedom around the world.

"My administration worked closely with members of Congress and the U.S. religious community to secure passage of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which is an important addition to our ongoing efforts to make the promotion of religious freedom a national priority and an integral part of our foreign policy."

The statement went on to emphasize "the noble struggle for religious freedom of people of all backgrounds, whether Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, or Baha'i."

Baha'is in the U.S. number 130,000, with 10,000 of those having fled from Iran, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Many are using the closing of the university as a rallying point in protests against Iran, holding prayer vigils and combining their forces with adherents in more than 300 countries, according to the Inquirer. "The government of Iran has been tenacious in denying Baha'is basic civil rights. They have now shut down their only opportunity to obtain a higher education," said Peter Murphy, a Baha'i in Atlantic City who teaches high school English. "This is a generation of young people whose lives have already been disrupted. The next step will be to round them up and have them wear yellow stars on their shirts. We can't let this happen."

Many organizations across the country have been mounting letter-writing campaigns, sponsoring talks and encouraging people to write in protest of the developments in Iran. College campuses are becoming active, and many schools in the Northeast have already held activities, including Princeton and Bryn Mawr, and concerned students are urging professors to write in support of the Baha'i educators.

At Drew University, students have already convinced Tom Kean, the University president, to write letters on behalf of the Baha'is. Students Against Genocide (SAGE), a club similar to Amnesty International, is holding a letter-writing campaign next week, co-sponsored by the school's Chaplain's office.

"We heard about this issue and immediately realized its importance," said junior Mary Beth Ehrhardt, co-chair of SAGE. "As students at a university, we are particularly sympathetic to the Baha'i students in Iran. We're looking forward to educating people on this issue and getting support from the campus."

Camm Maguire, a Baha'i from Princeton, N.J., talked recently with the Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations. "He expressed his concern over the plight of the Baha'is and explained that he felt the main reason behind their persecution is that they are simply being used as scapegoats," Maguire said. Professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University Farhang Mehr, in a Philadelphia Inquirer article, agreed. He says the persecution "is not a concerted effort by the government," but mainly of small groups of radicals and hard-line clerics within Iran's political hierarchy.

Charges of new persecution of the Baha'is come just as the Iranian government is showing its most moderate face in two decades, due mainly to the election of President Mohammed Khatami. According to the New York Times, though, the Iranian security forces are controlled not by Khatami but by the country's supreme spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is far more conservative.

The Times says one possible explanation for the timing of the university's closing is that Khamenei's followers want to defy or discredit Khatami. Another theory is that Khatami is permitting the crackdown as a gesture to traditionalists as he tries to improve relations in the West on other matters. A third suggestion is that Khatami simply has no disagreement with the attack on the Baha'is.

The Iranian mission to the UN in New York was unavailable for comment; they did not return phone calls regarding the issue.

Baha'is across the globe view the recent events, especially the closing of the university, as ominous. "I see this as a reactivation of general pressure on the Baha'i community," Dr. Firuz Kazemzadeh, a retired professor of history at Yale University and secretary for external affairs of the Baha'is of the U.S., said in the New York Times.

According to the Times, the university remains shut for now, its administrators freed on bail. But Baha'is say it will not be long before the efforts of the university begin again. "Education is such a central goal for us," said one Baha'i to the Times, "that we must rebuild. It is like a light at the end of a tunnel."

A letter addressed from simply "the Iranian Baha'i students" can be found at a web site featuring information about the closing, "We are at the end of the 20th century and life is still harder and harder for Baha'is in Iran," the letter says.

"It seems that President Khatami is talking about freedom, [but] if it exists in Iran it is just for a special group of people...

"This [the closing of the university] is the meaning of freedom in Islamic Regime and that is why, as followers of the Baha'i Faith who are deprived of almost all social and personal rights, [we are] sending this message for the world asking them to think and pray for us ... for strength to tolerate the tortures up to our last breath."