Remembering a persecuted past of Baha'is in Iran

Elika Roohi/Sun Star Editor-in-Chief
March 5, 2013

Last week, one of my classes got cancelled and I was happy to spend some time in the sunshine on campus.  Last week in Iran, a Civil Engineering student was expelled from her university because of her religious beliefs.

Paniz Fazl-Ali was asked to declare her religion on university forms and wrote she was a member of the Baha’i Faith, according to the Guardian.  The following week, Fazl-Ali went to go check her exam results and discovered she had been expelled from her university.

This is the sad situation for Baha’is, the largest religious minority group in Iran, where Islam is the official religion of the state.  Other religious groups–Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians–are tolerated, but Baha’is are denied basic human rights.

Fazl-Ali and I have a few things in common.  We both grew up in Baha’is families, an upbringing that put an emphasis basic Baha’i principles like equality of men and women, harmony of science and religion and a belief in one God.  But unlike Fazl-Ali’s family, my dad left Iran in the late ‘70s.  I’ve grown up unrestricted.  Fazl-Ali has not.

The Baha’i Faith is a world religion founded in Iran in the mid-1800’s.  Baha’is believe in progressive revelation, or the idea that all the major prophets have come from the same God bringing the same message to humanity at different times.  In Iran, the Islamic government considers these beliefs heresy because they believe Mohammad is the last prophet.  They also falsely believe that Baha’is are zionist spies because the world center of the Baha’i Faith is in Israel.

Since 2004, 600 Baha’is have been arrested for no particular reason–among them my cousin, who was arrested in 2007 for teaching a Baha’i children’s class.  Haleh Rouhi was arrested with a group of 54 Baha’is.  Most of them were released after a few days.  Haleh and two others were held in jail for a few years.

“It’s mind-boggling that the government of Iran would consider such efforts to be any type of threat,” said Diane Ala’i, the representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations in Geneva in 2008.

And yet, the government of Iran does consider these efforts and individuals to be threats.

Baha’is have been formally denied access to higher education since 1981, said the Baha’i World News Service.  Iran’s government actually instructs universities to kick all their Baha’i students out, according to a memo leaked in 2006, said the Guardian.

Baha’is in Iran seeking education turned to other measures.  In 1987, the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education was founded.  BIHE is essentially an underground university.  They offer correspondence courses and classes that can be taught in an individual’s home in a variety of subjects from Persian Literature to Applied Chemistry.  Many schools in the United States and around the world–UC Berkeley, Harvard and Stanford to name but a few–recognize diplomas from the BIHE and accept BIHE students into their graduate programs.

Given its nature, the BIHE has suffered from many raids throughout its history.  The most recent raid happened in May 2011.  BIHE teachers from several cities were imprisoned and sentenced to four or five years in jail.  They are currently among over 100 unjustly imprisoned Baha’is in Iran, according to the U.S. Baha’i News Service.

These gross injustices have been going on for over 100 years, but they only seem to be getting worse.  In a recent article, the Washington Post said freedom was languishing for the Baha’is in Iran.  Since September, three mothers and their young babies were imprisoned, according to the Baha’i International News Service.

Right now, Baha’is around the world are observing the fast, a period of 19 days spent abstaining from food and drink between sunrise and sunset.  Like other religious fasts, the purpose is to become detached from material things and focus on spiritual growth.  The fast always reminds me of how much I take for granted.  Living in the West means I don’t have to worry about being denied education or fear imprisonment because of my religion like many of my relatives left in Iran do.  The best thing to do is raise awareness so one day Fazl-Ali and others like her can go back to school and back to their lives.

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