U of C condemns denial of education to Bah·íÌs

By Natalie Vacha

Iran’s nuclear development has made headlines all over the world, but while the furor over nuclear escalation continues, an ongoing human rights issue in Iran is drawing condemnation.

The University of Calgary is speaking out against the Iranian government’s practice of denying Bahá’í students access to university because of their religious affiliation.

“It’s particularly galling for them because education is considered very important for Bahá’ís,” said
Dr. Pierre-Yves Mocquais, professor in the department of French, Italian and Spanish at the U of C.

Several Bahá’í professors at the
U of C made a push for action in May when they petitioned president
Dr. Harvey Weingarten to take up the cause of Bahá’í students and write a letter to the Iranian government condemning their denial of higher education to Bahá’ís.

“We were motivated to write the letter because we all are Bahá’ís,” said Mocquais, one of three signatories of the letter. “Beyond that, the conditions of Bahá’ís in Iran, specifically young Bahá’ís being denied access to universities, was a concern.”

Last month, the U of C General Faculties Council sent a letter to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada and a second letter to the United Nations. The letters, dated Feb. 5, 2007, stated that “access to knowledge is a fundamental human right,” and, “there is evidence that persons of the Bahá’í faith are being denied access to higher education in Iran.”

Until recently, Bahá’í youths were weeded out of the application process before they saw the inside of a classroom. Students taking university entrance exams were required to state their religion, and anyone who did not indicate one of the constitutionally-sanctioned religions was not accepted.

“Bahá’í are not willing to denounce their religion whatever their situation may be,” said Aram Mohtadi, a recent U of C alumnus and member of the Bahá’í community. “Anyone not declaring one of the four recognized religions—Islam, Christianity, Judaism or Zoroastrianism­—was excluded. Not only did this keep Bahá’í out, but it kept the government database on Bahá’í up-to-date.”

Iranian authorities later bowed to international pressure and removed the declaration of faith from the exam. According to the Bahá’í International Community website, Bahá’í students passed the countrywide university entrance exams in 2005, many with very high scores. However, when they received their test results, they had been designated Muslims.

“It amounted to denying their faith,” explained Mocquais. “Which is what the government has been trying to do from the beginning.”

This month, the U.S. Department of State released the 2006 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. It confirmed that this year, for the first time, approximately 200 Bahá’í students were accepted to Iranian universities.
However, it was not certain if their acceptance was caused by a change in government policy or simply the change in university application forms.

The report also noted that although the students were allowed to register, 14 were later identified as Bahá’í by their professors, barred from classes and told they would need a Ministry of Education certificate to return to school. At the end of the year they still had no response from the ministry.

Mocquais attributes the denial of higher education to Bahá’í to a government policy of suppression.

“The [UN] revealed a document signed by the Ayatollah Khomeini [the Supreme Leader of Iran] ordering a ‘final solution’ be found for Bahá’í,” explained Mocquais. “Not that they would be killed, but reduced to nothing—denied education, jobs, everything.”

The government document was approved by the Ayatollah in 1991. It contained explicit guidelines for dealing with “the Bahá’í question” and outlined restrictions on Bahá’í access to education and employment so that Bahá’í “progress and development shall be blocked.”

The memorandum even specified that: “[Bahá’ís] can be enrolled in schools provided they have not identified themselves as Bahá’ís… They 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.”

Though the Iranian government denies the document’s authenticity, several UN experts have noted its close resemblance to current government policies on Bahá’ís.

“If you can’t get proper education, you can’t get a proper job and support your family and will eventually die out as a people,” said Mohtadi. “If someone doesn’t do something with themselves, it’s psychological torture. You want to advance yourself, but with no education you’re left in a state of poverty.”
The Bahá’í community has tried to find alternate ways to continue the education of young Bahá’ís, establishing the Bahá’í Institute of Higher Education in 1987.

The Iranian government watches the BIHE’s activities, and has raided it several times, seizing computers, textbooks and other materials, noted Mocquais. The International Federation of Human Rights reported that faculty members were arrested and made to sign statements that the BIHE no longer existed.

“They try to compensate through this particular network—an underground university that the government knows about and raids periodically—but it certainly doesn’t do as much for their education as attending a university,” said Mocquais.

Despite these obstacles, the school continues to survive, now largely online for security reasons. But even this alternate education is no substitute for the university experience, noted Mohtadi.
“Whatever degrees they have are not recognized in Iran,” said Mohtadi. “They’d have to leave the country to pursue their studies. Still, we’re trying to find ways around the trouble with the Iranian government.”

Mohtadi said he believes U of C students can play an important roll in raising awareness about the plight of Bahá’í students.

“How would students here feel if they were denied entrance to university based on something stupid like religion or race?” asked Mohtadi. “Who better to bring this to the attention of the Iranian government than students themselves?”
Although the Bahá’í faith has only been around for 150 years, according to the Bahá’í International Community website, the faith has more than 5 million followers around the world. The faith is based on the beliefs that all religions are spiritually united, as there is only one God, and all humans should be united as one. These beliefs were taught by Bahá’u’lláh, a Persian nobleman who received a vision from God while imprisoned in 1852.

Members of today’s Bahá’í community come from a variety of religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, but they all study a common set of religious texts and share the same goal of promoting a united human race.

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