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Chapter II:

The Current Situation

I

n contrast to its campaign of outright killing, imprisonment, and torture of Bahá’ís during the 1980s, the Iranian government has in recent years focused largely on economic and social efforts to drive Bahá’ís from Iran and destroy their cultural and community life.

Such measures include on-going efforts to prevent Bahá’ís from receiving higher education, to deny them the means of economic livelihood, and to deprive them of the inspiration provided by their sacred and historic sites.

The government has also used arbitrary arrests and detentions and the continued confiscation of personal property to keep the community off balance. As well, the threat of imprisonment and execution implicitly remains.

Above all else, the Bahá’í community remains without fundamental religious freedoms accorded to it in international human rights documents that Iran has signed. These include the right of Bahá’ís to freely assemble, to choose their leadership, and to openly manifest their religion “in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”

Denial of Access to Education

The government’s efforts to deny Bahá’í youth access to higher education perhaps most clearly demonstrate the lengths to which the Iranian government is willing to go in its campaign of quiet strangulation.

Shortly after the 1979 Islamic revolution, large numbers of Bahá’í youth and children were expelled from school. The expulsions were not systematic, focusing mainly on children who were most strongly identified as Bahá’ís, but they ranged across the entire education system, from primary, through secondary, to the college-level, where the ban was virtually total.

In the 1990s, partly in response to international pressure, primary and secondary school children were allowed to re-enroll. However, the government has maintained the ban on the entry of Bahá’í youth into public and private institutions of higher education.

The government’s efforts to deny Bahá’í youth access to higher education perhaps most clearly demonstrate the lengths to which the Iranian government is willing to go in its campaign of quiet strangulation.

The government has used a very simple mechanism to exclude Bahá’ís from higher education: it has simply required that everyone who takes the national university entrance examination declare their religion. And applicants who indicate other than one of the four officially recognized religions in Iran — Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism — are excluded.

One young Iranian Bahá’í explained it this way: “In Iran, you have to apply for an examination to go to college. If you are successful at your exam, you can go to university. There is a place [on the examination form] which asks, ‘What is your religion?’ It has items just for Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism. And all of us [the Bahá’í students], we didn’t write anything at that place. On the left side I just wrote ‘Bahá’í.’ So they don’t let us take that examination. They didn’t give us the entrance card to go to the examination hall. So we can’t even take the exam.”

Being denied access to higher education for years has had a demoralizing effect on Bahá’í youth, and the erosion of the educational level of the community is clearly aimed at hastening its impoverishment. The Bahá’í Faith places a high value on education, and Bahá’ís have always been among the best-educated groups in Iran.

In the late 1980s, Bahá’í sought to mitigate the effects of the ban by establishing their own institution of higher education. Known as the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), the Institute offered classes in private homes throughout the country, augmented by a scattering of specialized classrooms, laboratories and libraries. At its peak, the Institute enrolled more than 900 students. [See "The Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education"]

The Institute, however, was in large part shut down in 1998 when agents of the government staged a series of raids, arresting at least 36 members of the BIHE’s faculty and staff and confiscating much of its equipment and records.

The raids on the Institute, however, drew considerable international attention to the government’s oppressive policies. Human rights organs at the United Nations called for an end to religious discrimination against Bahá’í students, and various governments have pressed Iran to allow Bahá’ís back into university.

Apparently in response to this pressure, the government officially announced in late 2003 that it would drop the declaration of religious affiliation on the application for the national university entrance examination.

Being denied access to higher education for years has had a demoralizing effect on Bahá’í youth, and the erosion of the educational level of the community is clearly aimed at hastening its impoverishment. The Bahá’í Faith places a high value on education, and Bahá’ís have always been among the best-educated groups in Iran.

This, Bahá’í youth believed at the time, cleared the way for them to take the examination and to enroll in university in the fall of 2004.

The removal of the data field asking for religious affiliation was critical to Bahá’í youth who sought to enter university. The government had always said that if Bahá’ís simply declare themselves as Muslims, they would be allowed to enroll. But for Bahá’ís, who as a matter of religious principle refuse to lie or dissimulate about their belief, even pretending to be a Muslim for the sake of going to university was unthinkable.

False Promises

With the promise that religious affiliation would not matter, about 1,000 Bahá’ís accordingly signed up for and took university entrance examinations in 2004. And, indeed, no field declaring religion was on the papers.

Students were asked to take a religious subject examination, however. It came as part of the whole range of subject tests relating to mathematics, language, history, and so on. The religion tests were offered in four subjects, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism, corresponding to the four recognized religions in Iran.

Most Bahá’í students opted for the Islamic subject test since, as the majority religion, Islam is taught in all schools and most Bahá’ís accordingly have a solid familiarity with its teachings.

In August, however, when the examination results were mailed out, government authorities had printed the word “Islam” in a data field listing a prospective student’s religion.

“This duplicity astounded the Bahá’í community,” the Bahá’í community of Iran wrote in a letter to Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, referring to the incident. “Alas, the joyful news that the question about the religion of the applicants had been omitted from the national university entrance examination…was quite short-lived.”

When confronted by Bahá’ís, officials cynically explained they did that on the assumption that choosing to take the subject test on Islam amounts to a de facto declaration of faith in Islam.

The government’s intentions were further revealed when a group of Bahá’í students complained to officials at the national Educational Measurement and Evaluation Organization (EMEO), asking if they could return the exam results with corrected information. A footnote in the letter conveying examination results said that incorrect names and addresses could and should be corrected and returned.

However, no mention was made about correcting religious information. Indeed, Bahá’ís were told by EMEO officials that “incorrect religion would not be corrected” on the forms since the Bahá’í Faith is not among the officially recognized religions in Iran.

Shortly after that meeting, Bahá’í students wrote a letter of protest to the EMEO. The students expressed, clearly, their objection to having been designated as Muslims after having been promised that they would not have to state their religion in order to take the entrance examination.

At first, EMEO officials seemed to sympathize with their problem, even allowing Bahá’ís to fill out revised registration forms with no religious affiliation.

“Another glimmer of hope was thus kindled in the hearts of the Bahá’í youth, who immediately proceeded to meet with the authorities in order to choose their fields of study,” wrote the Bahá’í community of Iran in its letter to President Khatami.

However, even though some 800 Bahá’í students who had passed their examinations also met the new deadline for submission of the revised forms, only ten names were published in an EMEO bulletin on 12 September 2004 announcing which students had been admitted to university.

It’s worth noting also that many Bahá’ís received high scores on the examinations, and, in fact, many of them were passed over in the admission process, while many lower-scoring Muslim students were accepted.

It’s worth noting also that many Bahá’ís received high scores on the examinations, and, in fact, many of them were passed over in the admission process, while many lower-scoring Muslim students were accepted.

In the end, out of solidarity with the rest of the 800 students who had been unfairly discriminated against, those ten Bahá’ís declined to register in the universities to which they had been accepted. And so, for the school year 2004-2005, Bahá’í young people were once again utterly deprived of access to higher education.

The Iranian government has continued to pursue its strange game for the 2005–2006 school year. By mid-August 2005, hundreds of Bahá’ís had received their university entrance examination results. And once again, the government had falsely printed the word “Islam” as the religious identification for the Bahá’í students.

For Bahá’ís, the entire process is cynically calculated to accomplish a number of government objectives. First, it apparently seeks to demoralize Iranian Bahá’í youth in an effort to induce them to leave the country. Second, it allowed Iranian authorities to identify by name those Bahá’ís with outstanding academic ability, who might at some point play a role in helping to revive the Bahá’í community’s fortunes. Third, it allowed the Iranian government to say to international human rights monitors that they had given the Bahá’ís a chance to enroll — and that it was the Bahá’ís themselves who refused the opportunity.

Yet the government, of course, has long been aware that Bahá’ís cannot and will not as a matter of religious principle falsify or misrepresent their beliefs. Without doubt, then, Iran’s actions amount to nothing less than government sponsored policy aimed at denying an entire generation of Bahá’ís their right to higher education.

 

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