From Cradle to Grave

The all-encompassing nature of Iran’s state-sponsored persecution of Baha’is

As noted recently by the UN’s special expert on freedom of religion or belief, the persecution of Iran’s Baha’i community extends from cradle to grave, touching Baha’is at every stage of life.

Currently, three infant children are imprisoned with their mothers.

In primary and secondary schools, students are frequently harassed and insulted by teachers.

Throughout Iran, young Baha’is are denied access to higher education.

Adults are banned from government employment and discriminated against in virtually every other sector of the economy.

Baha’i marriages are not recognized, inheritances are denied.

The elderly are denied rightfully earned pensions.

This all-encompassing discrimination extends even to death. In many locations, Baha’is are denied the right to proper burial while unprosecuted acts of arson and vandalism at Baha’i cemeteries carries the persecution beyond the grave.

Imprisonment of children

Among the 115 Baha’is currently in prison are three infant children, incarcerated with their mothers, who were told to report to prison despite the fact that each has a child of nursing age.

In all three cases, the mothers come from the city of Semnan, which has been a focus of government-led anti-Baha’i activity.

All three were arrested and convicted on false charges that stem solely from their Baha’i belief. Two of the women were arrested in March 2011. After time for appeals, both were told to report to the prison in September 2012. Fewer details are available regarding the status of the third mother and child, other than that she was first arrested in December 2012.

Exposed to the harsh conditions of prison, at least two of the infants have suffered health problems.

In one case, the child – who was six months old when he entered prison with his mother – contracted an intestinal infection. He was temporarily removed from prison by his father for medical treatment a few months ago, but has since been returned to his mother.

In the second case, the child – who was only about one month old when he entered prison – contracted a lung infection due to the unsanitary conditions. Sadly, both of his parents are in prison, and the mother has chosen to treat her infant there. The fact that both parents are in prison has also caused concern for the boy’s nutritional health as he grows, since there are fewer opportunities for relatives to bring good food during visits and holidays.

Harassment of schoolchildren

In recent years, there has been a marked increase in the harassment of Baha’i schoolchildren.

Individual incidents range from derogatory remarks about the Baha’i Faith by classroom teachers to outright expulsions and, in a few cases, beatings by school officials. In one case, for example, a student accepted at an art institute was followed by the authorities and on three occasions seized, blindfolded, and beaten, according to a report that emerged in 2007. The range of incidents also includes evidence of secret monitoring by school officials, as well as overt efforts to identify and count Baha’i students.

Overall, the Baha’i International Community has been able to document nearly 300 such incidents of harassment, abuse or beatings involving schoolchildren since 2005.

Many of these incidents, as well, involve situations where Baha’i students are forced to endure classroom attacks on the history and teachings of the Baha’i Faith that are quite clearly intended to dissuade them of their religious beliefs and induce their conversion to Islam. This is plainly against international protections of freedom of religion or belief. Many Iranian textbooks, moreover, denigrate, distort, or falsify the history and teachings of the Baha’i Faith, and yet students, including Baha’i children, are required to learn such history and be tested on it.

Banned from university

Soon after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, young Baha’is were barred from attending institutions of higher learning in Iran and Baha’i professors were summarily dismissed. In recent years, in the face of international pressure, Iran has changed its admission procedures, ostensibly allowing Baha’is to attend colleges and universities in Iran. In fact, however, the government has merely erected new barriers which permit some Baha’is to attend classes, but explicitly prevent Baha’is from obtaining a university degree.

Early on, the government used a simple mechanism to exclude Baha’is from higher education: it merely required that everyone who takes the national university entrance examination declare their religion. Applicants who did not list one of the four officially recognized religions in Iran — Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism — were excluded.

For Baha’is, it is a matter of religious principle to tell the truth about their beliefs, so even pretending to be a Muslim for the sake of going to university was unthinkable. And so Baha’is were effectively banned from attendance at public and private colleges and universities in Iran.

In late 2003, the government announced it would drop the declaration of religious affiliation on the application for the national university entrance examination. This appeared to clear the way for Baha’is to take the examination and enroll.

However, each year since then, the government has used some ploy or scheme to prevent large numbers of Baha’is from enrolling in university.

In 2004 and 2005, the government sent back the examination papers with the word “Islam” printed in the data field for a prospective student’s religion. In 2006, the main tactic used to deprive Baha’is of access to higher education was expulsions. About 900 Baha’i students sat for the exam in June 2006. Nearly 500 passed and were listed as eligible to apply to university. Yet of the roughly 200 who ultimately managed to enroll, the majority were gradually expelled over the course of the coming academic year.

That those expulsions reflect official government policy was confirmed in a confidential 2006 letter from Iran’s Ministry of Science, Research and Technology instructing Iranian universities to expel any student who is discovered to be a Baha’i.

In 2007, the government adopted yet another tactic, that of sending back entrance examinations they deemed “incomplete.” Of the more than 1,000 Baha’i students who sat for and properly completed the entrance examination, nearly 800 were excluded because of “incomplete files.”

Since that time, the government has continued mainly with these tactics, either refusing to admit qualified students on account of “incomplete files” or expelling them from university once they have enrolled.

As such, a whole generation of Baha’i youth have been deprived of attending public and private universities in Iran. Some have managed to obtain an education through self-tutorials, on-line coursework, or informal initiatives of the Baha’i community to provide equivalent learning.

Economic Persecution

As part of an explicit plan to block the development of the Baha’i community, the government has placed severe restrictions on the kinds of economic activities that Baha’is are allowed to be engaged in. These policies have meant the firing of tens of thousands of Baha’is from their jobs, along with the loss of millions of dollars of income for Baha’is and reciprocal economic benefits to the Iranian economy.

Immediately after the 1979 Revolution, Baha’is were fired wholesale from government jobs – including teachers, police officers, and social workers – and the overall ban on working in the public sector remains in force.

In the private sector, Baha’is have faced increasing restrictions. Government regulatory agencies have pressured Muslim employers to fire Baha’is or to otherwise limit their prospects. In some cases, for example, whole industries – such as food preparation and mass communications – have been declared off limits to Baha’is. In other cases, local officials have repeatedly harassed Baha’i businessmen, denying them business licenses or padlocking their shops.

In the city of Semnan, where Baha’is have faced an all-encompassing array of economic, physical, and psychological attacks, all Baha’i-owned shops, except one, have been closed down and sealed by the authorities. In May 2012, authorities also closed two Baha’i-owned factories, putting out of work not only about two dozen Baha’is but also some 36 Muslim employees.

The campaign to deprive Baha’is of their livelihood continues. Early this year, a large, Baha’i-owned distributor of hygiene products in Tehran was closed down resulting in 70 employees losing their jobs. The Baha’i owner was warned not to file complaints.

Marriages unrecognized, inheritances denied

In Iran, neither Baha’i marriage nor Baha’i divorce is legally recognized, leading to various kinds of discrimination, and inheritances are often blocked or denied.

In 2011, for example, a Baha’i couple in Hamadan went to the Civil Registration Office to file an affidavit about their marriage. Officials there told them that, based on a recent circular, those who want to register their marriages should take the matter to court. Accordingly, they went to court, where they were arrested, and subsequently released on bail.

That same year, an announcement had recently been sent to the official marriage bureaus in Shiraz, prohibiting them from performing a marriage ceremony for an interfaith Baha’i and Muslim couple. The announcement threatened the bureaus with closure if they do not follow the instructions.

Problems also arise when Baha’is are due to inherit money or property from Muslim relatives. For example, a 1999 article in Iranian newspaper described the various circumstances in which a Baha’i claimant to an inheritance cannot enjoy the rights of an inheritor because a Baha’i “is considered an infidel and is excluded from the inheritance.”

Denial of Pensions

In numerous work-related cases over the years, many Baha’is have had their rightfully earned pensions terminated on religious grounds. Some have attempted to pursue legal remedies, but the courts systematically rule against them. Copies of court decisions in such cases explicitly state: “payment of pension to those individuals connected with the baha’i sect is illegal” [or an “unlawful act”].

In a recent case in Karaj, on 25 September 2012, a Baha’i responded to a summons from the Karaj medical department’s pension office. There, she was informed that her father’s pension was being discontinued due to his being a Baha’i. When the Baha’i asked if the official knew how many years her father had served the people of Iran, the official acknowledged having read in the file that pensioner had traveled from house to house and village to village to provide medical treatment to people. But the official said: “In accordance with the fatwa issued by the Imam, wages paid to all Baha’is must be discontinued.” He added that he was not in a position to comment on the matter.

Graveyard desecration and barriers to proper burial

Baha’is are not safe from persecution even beyond the grave. Among the dramatic features of the upsurge in violence against Baha’is and their properties in recent years has been a series of attacks on Baha’i cemeteries. These attacks have involved such assaults as the firebombing of mortuary buildings, the toppling of gravestones, the uprooting of landscape shrubbery, the spray-painting of anti-Baha’i graffiti on cemetery walls and the exhumation of bodies. Given cultural norms that hold last rites as sacred and cemeteries as holy ground, these attacks seem especially egregious and hateful.

Since 2005, the Baha’i International Community has documented 42 such attacks. They have been widespread, touching nearly every region of the country.

In a number of communities, municipal authorities have also interfered with or denied the rights of Baha’is to a proper burial.

In one of these cases, the authorities in Tabriz had refused to allow the family of a deceased Baha’i woman to bury her remains according to Baha’i law. The day after her passing, cemetery authorities notified the family to proceed with burial the next day at the cemetery in Tabriz and assigned the time. The family was not told until guests and family had gathered for the funeral that a Baha’i burial would not be permitted. No funeral took place, and everyone left the cemetery. The woman’s son took the family’s complaint to the mayor’s office, the municipality, the governor’s office, the governor general’s office, the Islamic council in the city of Tabriz and the Friday prayer leader of Tabriz. He was told that the instructions would not be changed. Subsequently, the Friday prayer leader sent a letter instructing cemetery officials to transfer the remains to another cemetery in Miandoab.Upon learning of the transfer, the family travelled to Miandoab, identified the deceased and buried her remains in accordance with Baha’i burial laws.