Human Rights

In Iran, a renewed persecution aims at "cultural cleansing"

In its ongoing persecution of the Bahá'í community, the Iranian government shifts to softer targets – destroying cultural landmarks and depriving youth of education – in an apparent effort to avoid international attention while smothering the country’s largest religious minority.

NEW YORK – The Iranian government has recently stepped up its ongoing persecution of the Bahá'í community of Iran, destroying a major cultural landmark associated with the Bahá'í Faith and acting to deprive some 1,000 young Iranian Bahá'ís of promised access to higher education.

In June, authorities demolished an historic house in Teheran that had been designed and owned by the father of the Faith’s founder. The house was not only significant to Bahá'ís but was also considered to be a sterling example of period architecture of historic importance to Muslims.

In August, it was learned that the government had reneged on its promise to allow young Bahá'ís to attend public universities. After being banned from higher education for more than 20 years, Bahá'í students were told by the government earlier this year that they would be allowed to take university entrance exams and attend if they passed.

However, in a move that seems calculated to continue the higher education ban while evading the scrutiny of international human rights monitors, the government is forcing Bahá'í students who want to enter university to declare themselves as Muslims. Such a declaration is something that Bahá'ís are forbidden to do as a matter of religious principle and runs counter to human rights covenants upholding freedom of belief.

"Over the years, the government’s strategy has changed from outright killing to methods that are less likely to attract international attention, such as the destruction of holy sites and the deprivation of soft rights like education," said Bani Dugal, the principal representative of the Bahá'í International Community to the United Nations.

"But the end goal is the same: to completely destroy the Bahá'í community of Iran, along with its history and heritage," said Ms. Dugal.

The house that was destroyed in June was owned by Mirza Abbas Nuri, the father of Bahá’u’lláh. Its destruction prompted an outcry by Bahá'ís around the world.

In six nations, Bahá'í communities coordinated the publication of a statement in major newspapers that decried the house’s destruction as part of a campaign of "cultural cleansing" against the minority Bahá'í community in Iran.

Noting that the house was an "historical monument, a precious example of Islamic-Iranian architecture, ‘a matchless model of art, spirituality, and architecture,’" the statement compared Iran’s extremist Muslim leadership to the Taliban of Afghanistan.

"The hatred of the extremist mullahs for the Bahá'ís is such that they, like the Taliban of Afghanistan who destroyed the towering Buddhist sculptures at Bamian, intend not only to eradicate the religion, but even to erase all traces of its existence in the country of its birth," said the statement.

"In their determination to rid Iran of the Bahá'í community and obliterate its very memory, the fundamentalists in power are prepared even to destroy the cultural heritage of their own country, which they appear not to realize they hold in trust for humankind," the statement continued.

Students denied access

The move to prevent Bahá'ís from enrolling in university without declaring themselves as Muslims seems designed to appease Western human rights monitors, said Ms. Dugal, noting that Iran is currently engaged in a "human rights dialogue" with Europe.

"For more than a year, the government has held out the promise that Bahá'ís would, for the first time in some 20 years, be allowed to attend national institutions of higher education," said Ms. Dugal. "Now, in what amounts to a devious ‘Catch-22’, the government is saying ‘You can come, but you must pretend you are a Muslim.’ But that is something Bahá'ís cannot do. And the government knows that."

"So this latest action is nothing but a ploy, designed to make it appear as if Bahá'ís themselves are refusing to attend university. The fact is, however, that Bahá'ís could always have attended university if they had been willing to lie about their faith on application forms. This new move is an underhanded attempt to force Bahá'ís into such a position," Ms. Dugal said.

Representatives of the Bahá'í International Community learned in August about the action, which involves pre-printing the word "Islam" in a slot listing a prospective student’s religious affiliation on national college entrance examination results, mailed to students over the summer.

In the past, entrance forms required that applicants list themselves as followers of one of the four officially recognized religions in Iran — Islam, Christianity, Judaism, or Zoroastrianism. Those were the only choices and Bahá'ís, who refused to lie about their affiliation, were excluded from university.

This year, as a result of pressure from within and outside Iran, examination forms had no such slot for religious affiliation. Instead, university applicants were merely asked to designate which of four approved religious subject examinations — Islam, Christianity, Judaism, or Zoroastrianism — they chose to take as part of overall university entrance examinations.

Nearly all Bahá'í students chose "Islam" for the religious subject examination — a move that would not compromise their principles, since Bahá'ís accept Islam as divine, along with all other major world religions, and would have no problem answering questions about it. And many young Bahá'ís in Iran eagerly anticipated finally being able to join their fellow Iranian youth at university this year.

Now, according to reports from Iran, officials are saying that that choice amounts to a de facto declaration of faith in Islam. In response to questions from Bahá'ís, one government official said that "belief in Islam is the same as responding to the choice of taking specific religious studies examination."

Further, upon learning of the forced religious declaration, a group of Bahá'í students complained to officials at the National Organization of Testing and Training (NATT), 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 NATT 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.

Largest religious minority

These two events reflect the ongoing nature of the persecution by the government, said Ms. Dugal, which has sought for more than 25 years to eradicate Iran’s 300,000-member Bahá'í community — the country’s largest religious minority. Since 1979, more than 200 Iranian Bahá'ís have been killed, hundreds have been tortured and/or imprisoned, and thousands have lost jobs, pensions and/or access to education, all solely because of their religious belief.

"In many different localities in Iran, Bahá'ís are still subjected to arbitrary arrest, short-term detention, harassment, intimidation, and discrimination," said Ms. Dugal. "Officials continue to confiscate Bahá'í homes, deny them their rightfully earned pensions and inheritance, block their access to employment, or impede their private business activities, and all attempts to obtain redress in such cases are denied."

Ms. Dugal added that Iranian authorities interfere with classes given to young members of the community in private houses and persist in banning the sacred institutions that, in the Bahá'í Faith, perform most of the functions reserved to clergy in other religions. As of September 2004, she said, one Bahá'í was still being held in Iran under a sentence of life imprisonment for apostasy, solely because of his religious beliefs.

The destruction of the house of Mirza Abbas Nuri followed the razing in April of another historic Bahá'í property, the gravesite of Quddus, an early disciple of the Bahá'í Faith. The action came after demolition work started in February and then halted temporarily in the face of protest at the local, national, and international levels.

Placing a statement in newspapers around the world to call attention to the destruction of Mirza Abbas Nuri’s home is part of a coordinated effort by Bahá'ís outside Iran to call attention to the destruction of cultural landmarks that are part of the heritage of the entire world, said Glen Fullmer, Director of Communications for the Bahá'í Community of the United States.

"The places that are being demolished are significant to all humanity," said Mr. Fullmer. "They reflect unique elements of Iran’s cultural history. So we are calling on Iranians around the world to protest the destruction of their own culture."

In France, the statement was placed in Le Monde, that country’s premier newspaper, said Brenda Abrar, a spokesperson for the Bahá'í community of France.

"There are a great many Iranians in France," said Ms. Abrar. "We want to alert them that their own cultural heritage is in danger. The house that was demolished in June actually represents a great work of Islamic architecture."

Mirza Abbas Nuri himself was widely regarded as one of Iran’s greatest calligraphers and statesmen. In July, the Iranian newspaper Hamshari published a lengthy article about his life and the architecture of his house.

"As he had good taste for the arts and for beauty, he designed his own house in such a style that it became known as one of the most beautiful houses of that period," wrote Imam Mihdizadih in Hamshahri on 13 July. "The plasterwork and the tile-work in the rooms as well as the verdant veranda, the courtyard with its central pool, and the trees planted in the flowerbeds, all created a tranquil atmosphere in this house."

The house was destroyed over the period of about one week in June. The demolition order was issued in April by Ayatollah Kani, director of the Marvi School and the Endowments Office of the government, ostensibly for the purpose of creating an Islamic cemetery. When the demolition started on 20 June, officials from the Ministry of Information were present, and by 29 June more than 70 percent of the structure had been destroyed.