Human Rights

In Iran, Baha'i schoolchildren are now targets of persecution

In Brief: 

"They are also being pressured to convert to Islam, required to endure slander of their faith by religious instructors, and being taught and tested on 'Iranian history' in authorized text that denigrate distort, and brazenly falsify their religious heritage."

- Bani Dugal, Bahá'í International Community

NEW YORK — Bahá’í students in primary and secondary schools throughout Iran are increasingly being harassed, vilified, and held up to abuse, according to recent reports from inside the country.

During a 30-day period from mid-January to mid-February 2007, some 150 incidents of insults, mistreatment, and even physical violence by school authorities against Bahá’í students were reported as occurring in at least 10 Iranian cities.
At the same time, nearly 40 percent of college-age Bahá’ís admitted to Iranian universities in the fall of 2006 have been expelled, powerful evidence that Bahá’í students in Iran still face severe discrimination and limited access to higher education.

Taken together, these two trends reflect a worsening situation for Iranian Bahá’ís, said Bani Dugal, the principal representative of the Bahá’í International Community to the United Nations.

“These new reports that the most vulnerable members of the Iranian Bahá’í community — children and junior youth — are being harassed, degraded, and, in at least one case, blindfolded and beaten, is an extremely disturbing development,” said Ms. Dugal.

“The increasing number of such incidents suggests a serious and shameful escalation in the ongoing persecution of Iranian Bahá’ís,” said Ms. Dugal. “The fact that school-aged children are being targeted by those who should rightfully hold their trust — teachers and school administrators — only makes this latest trend even more ominous.”

Abuse of school children

Ms. Dugal said the Bahá’í International Community has been aware of scattered reports of abuse directed at schoolchildren but has only recently learned that young Bahá’ís are now widely being forced to identify their religion — and are also being insulted, degraded, threatened with expulsion, and, in some cases, summarily dismissed from school.

“They are also being pressured to convert to Islam, required to endure slander of their faith by religious instructors, and being taught and tested on ‘Iranian history’ in authorized texts that denigrate, distort, and brazenly falsify their religious heritage,” said Ms. Dugal. “They are also being repeatedly told that they are not to attempt to teach their religion.”

According to Ms. Dugal, one Bahá’í has reported that the school-age children of a relative in Kermanshah were called to the front of the classroom, where they were required to listen to insults against the Faith.

“Another student, accepted at an art institute, has been followed by the authorities and on three occasions seized, blindfolded, and beaten,” said Ms. Dugal.

“While a few of these may be isolated attacks, the extent and nature of this reprehensible activity has led the Bahá’ís in Iran to conclude that this is an organized effort,” said Ms. Dugal.
Of special concern, she added, was the fact that a high proportion of the attacks against high school students have been against girls.

“While the attacks reported to have taken place in elementary and middle schools were leveled evenly against boys and girls, those at the high school level targeted girls to a far greater degree: of 76 incidents, 68 were against Bahá’í girls,” said Ms. Dugal.

Discrimination in higher education

After more than 25 years during which Iranian Bahá’ís were outright banned from attending public and private universities in Iran, some 178 Bahá’í students were admitted last fall to various schools around the country after the government changed its policies and removed religious identification from entrance examination papers.

As of mid-February, however, at least 70 students had been expelled after their universities became aware that they were Bahá’ís — some 39 percent of those who were admitted.

“The high percentage of expulsions — which are all explicitly connected to the students’ identities as Bahá’ís — suggests at best that the government is turning a blind eye to discrimination in higher education, and, at worst, is merely playing a game with Bahá’í students,” said Diane Ala’i, the Bahá’í International Community’s representative to the United Nations in Geneva.

“While we are happy that for the first time since the early 1980s a significant number of Iranian Bahá’í youth have been able to enter and attend the university of their choice, the government’s long history of systematic persecution against Bahá’ís certainly calls into question the sincerity of the new policies,” said Ms. Ala’i.

She noted, for example, that another 191 Bahá’í students, having successfully passed national college entrance examinations last summer, were unable to enter university this year, either because of the limited number of places for the course of their choice or for other reasons unknown to them.

In March the Bahá’í International Community obtained and released a 2 November 2006 letter from the headquarters of Payame Noor University to its regional branches, which states that it is government policy that Bahá’í students “cannot enroll” in Iranian universities and that if they are already enrolled, “they should be expelled.”

The 2 November letter was issued on the letterhead of Iran’s Ministry of Science, Research and Technology, and went out from Payame Noor’s “Central Protection Office” to directors of the university’s regional centers.

“With respect, according to the ruling of the Cultural Revolutionary Council and the instructions of the Ministry of Information and the Head Protection Office of the Central Organization of Payame Noor University, Bahá’ís cannot enroll in universities and higher education centers,” states the letter.

“Therefore, such cases if encountered should be reported, their enrollment should be strictly avoided, and if they are already enrolled they should be expelled.”

Payame Noor University is “the largest state university in terms of student numbers and coverage,” according to the university’s website, with some 467,000 students in 74 degree programs at 257 study centers and units throughout the country.

So far this year, at least 30 Bahá’í students have been expelled from Payame Noor.

“International law provides that access to education is a basic human right, and Iranian universities have no excuse for denying students who have successfully passed their examinations the right to attend simply because they are Bahá’ís,” added Ms. Ala’i.

Members of the largest religious minority in Iran, Bahá’ís of all ages have faced systematic religious persecution since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. More than 200 Bahá’ís have been killed, hundreds have been imprisoned, and thousands have had property or businesses confiscated, been fired from jobs, and/or had pensions terminated.

According to a secret 1991 government memorandum, Bahá’ís “must be expelled from universities, either in the admission process or during the course of their studies, once it becomes known that they are Bahá’ís.”

One of the chief means the government has used to enforce this policy was to require that everyone sitting for the national college entrance examination state their religion on the test registration forms. Test forms that listed “Bahá’í,” or that had no listing, were rejected.

In 2004, apparently in response to continued pressure from the international community, the Iranian government removed the data field for religious affiliation. About 1,000 Bahá’í students successfully sat for the examination that year and hundreds passed, many with very high scores.

Later that same year, however, in an action that Bahá’í International Community representatives characterize as a “ploy,” exam results were sent back to Bahá’ís with the word “Muslim” written in, something that officials knew would be unacceptable to Bahá’ís, who as a matter of religious principle refuse to deny their beliefs.

Government officials argued that since the Bahá’ís had opted to take the set of questions on Islam in the religious studies section of the test, they should be listed as Muslims. Bahá’ís contested the action and were rebuffed; no Bahá’í students entered university that year.

The same thing happened in 2005. Hundreds of Bahá’í students took and passed the national examination, only to find that the government had listed them as Muslims. Bahá’ís again contested the action, but without successful redress, and no Bahá’ís matriculated in 2005.

Last summer, again acting on good faith, hundreds of Bahá’ís took the national examination. This time, as indicated in the figures above, hundreds have passed, and some 178 were accepted into universities.

Throughout the fall, reports came out of Iran indicating that many of those who had been accepted were being refused entry or expelled once the universities learned that they were Bahá’ís.

“One student, for example, received a phone call from Payame Noor University on 18 October, asking whether he was a Bahá’í. When he replied in the affirmative, he was told that he could not be enrolled.

“Later, after visiting the university, the student was told that the university had received a circular from the National Educational Measurement and Evaluation Organization, which oversees the university entrance examination process, stating that while it would not prevent the Bahá’ís from going through the enrolment process, once enrolled, they were to be expelled.

Bahá’í student at that same university was told that students who do not specify their religion on registration forms would be disqualified from continuing their education there,” said Ms. Ala’i.