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Iran outlaws education for Baha'is: thousands denied higher education

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"A fresh measure of tribulation has befallen the Bahá'ís" in Iran. The warning, issued last week by the Bahá'í International Community, is given in an open letter to the Honourable Kamran Daneshjoo, Minister for Science, Research and Technology in the Islamic Republic. His ministry is responsible for implementing a longstanding state policy - denying Bahá'ís access to higher education.

The open letter is a significant intervention by the Bahá'í community on behalf of their coreligionists in Iran - as well as other minorities, some of whose members are also barred from higher education. The letter calls on Mr Daneshjoo to acknowledge the illegality of his ministry's policy and to respect the universal right to education - a right enshrined in international covenants to which Iran is a state party.

The Bahá'ís are Iran's largest religious minority. Since the 1979 Islamic revolution they have been persecuted and oppressed. Thousands were arrested and hundreds executed. Today, over a hundred Bahá'ís are in prison. Seven former leaders of the community have each been jailed for 20 years on trumped-up charges; unnumbered livelihoods are disrupted; school children are harassed; graves are desecrated; homes are razed.

A 1991 document signed by Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, states that the "progress and development" of the Bahá'ís should be "blocked", including their chances to study. The document describes a systematic campaign to eliminate the Bahá'í community as a viable entity in Iran. This policy has remained in effect for 20 years and it is the source of a fresh crackdown against Bahá'í educationalists.

Bahá'í professors and students were expelled from universities after the revolution because of their religious beliefs. Iranian Bahá'ís tried to resolve this situation with the government but their efforts "proved futile". By the late 1980s, "it became clear that Bahá'ís could not enroll in university without denying their faith", and that "the government would not rectify this situation".

Years of experience have demonstrated to the Bahá'ís that their youth remain barred from universities and other higher education institutions. Despite sometimes achieving the highest grades in entrance examinations, Bahá'ís are denied entry on spurious grounds. A few individuals who have been able to begin their studies have never been allowed to finish. In some "particularly cruel instances", Bahá'ís have been expelled "just weeks or days" before completing their courses.

The community had to meet its educational needs. The Bahá'í Institute for Higher Education , an informal arrangement, provided what the government withheld - an opportunity to study and learn. The benefits were limited: degrees could not be awarded and prospects were not improved by attending the Institute. The aim was "to nurture the intellectual faculties of youth", to "prepare them for service to their society".

The Islamic Republic "has made repeated attempts to hinder the Institute's progress and harass its participants". On 6 June 2011, Iranian media reported that Mr Daneshjoo's ministry had declared the Institute illegal. Thirty homes of Bahá'ís had been raided - such raids have happened several times in the last decade - and 19 individuals arrested. A number now face charges of conspiracy against the state.

And yet in the international arena, Iranian officials confronted with these facts "maintain that no one is deprived of education in Iran on account of his or her religion". The open letter challenges this categorically: it is "regrettable that the representatives of the Islamic Republic repeatedly peddle such obvious falsehoods". The Iranian government's credibility is undermined - and its inhumanity is exposed. To "actively deprive any youth of access to education is reprehensible and against all legal, religious, moral and humanitarian standards". There are sympathetic heads inside Mr Daneshjoo's ministry. But orders from the top force them to execute a policy that violates human dignity.

Despite its strained resources, scores of Institute graduates have been accepted into postgraduate programmes in other countries. Once abroad, they have earned the "deep admiration" of their professors and classmates - not simply because of their story, but their determination to return to Iran "despite numerous obstacles ... to contribute to the advancement of their country". But this dedication is unappreciated Iran's government.

By obstructing the progress of the Bahá'í community, by denying its youth places at university and by dismantling their private attempts to study, the government is declaring illegal for some of its citizens the use of their minds to acquire knowledge. And yet - how can it be illegal to study, to learn, to accompany others in the quest for knowledge?

In the end, the letter asks, what is illegal - the "efforts of a community to educate its own youth" or a "government policy that excludes its citizens from higher education on the basis of their religious affiliation"? The standards of international law and basic human rights can only result in a single answer.

Bahá'ís are enjoined by the Founder of their Faith, Bahá'u'lláh, to obey their government. But this obedience is not absolute. The open letter warns Mr Daneshjoo, the government official whose ministry is willfully neglecting its duty to hundreds of thousands of Iranians, that Bahá'ís will not accept any compromise "on matters of fundamental principle". The education of children and youth "is one such principle".

"Knowledge", according to the Bahá'í Writings, "is as wing's to man's life, and a ladder for his ascent". Its acquisition is "incumbent upon everyone". Bahá'u'lláh adds that "the happiness and pride of a nation consist in this, that it should shine out like the sun in the high heaven of knowledge". If we look at the Iran on this noble measure, we can see that the government is making the country a miserable place - for Bahá'ís, Kurds, women, indeed anyone who falls foul of the Islamic Republic's repressive policies.