Eleven Bahá'ís in Iran are the latest victims of the Islamic Republic's relentless campaign to persecute the Bahá'í community - the country's largest non-Muslim religious minority. They are charged with conspiracy against the state and national security, "by establishing", according to the authorities, "the illegal Bahá'í Institute for Higher Education".
It is part of a long-standing pattern of callous abuse: the sentencing to 20-years in prison of seven former community leaders on trumped-up charges; the detention of over 100 other believers; the denial of education and livelihoods; the harassment of school children; the desecration of Bahá'í graves; the razing of homes. Thousands of Bahá'ís have been arrested since the 1979 Islamic revolution and hundreds executed.
The Institute began in 1987 as an informal programme to give young Bahá'ís a chance to study. Bahá'ís were barred from university and had nowhere else to go. It offered 17 undergraduate courses taught by Bahá'í academics who, because of their beliefs, had been dismissed from state positions. A 1991 policy memorandum signed by the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, spells out the government's purpose - to block the progress and development of the community. It is an official policy of strangulation authorised at the highest level. Iran is trying to systematically eliminate the Bahá'í community by willfully destroying the future of its youth.
The eleven were arrested in May, along with eight others who have been released, after the authorities had raided 39 homes. Criminal charges were filed just before the expiration of a two-month deadline, in a subversion of due process intended to keep the Bahá'ís in jail. The families of the eleven fear that their loved ones will be imprisoned for an extended period of time. But Iranians are now scrutinising the actions of the authorities. They understand better than ever the character of their government. Iran's actions are at odds with its rhetoric and its officials disregard their human rights obligations. Iran has never yet offered a vaguely tenable reason for persecuting Bahá'ís, other religious minorities, Kurds, intellectuals and journalists, artists, academics, homosexuals, and women.
The Institute has been attacked three times before, in 1998, 2001 and 2003, and it has now been banned outright. These eleven Bahá'ís have been charged not because they are enemies of the state but because they are active servants of society. It is a nonsense to declare illegal the acquisition of knowledge. Debarring Bahá'ís from study, whether in state-run institutions or private homes, is absurd and indefensible. The Iranian authorities clearly feel no need to justify a policy that mocks their own humanity.
Education is enshrined in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is affirmed by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a treaty to which Iran is a state party. The right to an education is as fundamental and essential to human life as breathing. Barring Bahá'ís from university and then declaring illegal their peaceful attempts at study - an attempt made necessary by the government's own decree - demonstrates that the authorities care nothing for justice. By not granting Bahá'ís the same rights as other Iranians, the authorities are making it clear, in case any doubt remained, that Bahá'ís are not accepted as citizens. The government would rather the Bahá'ís left the country or recanted their faith; the only way for Bahá'ís to be left alone at university is to say they are Muslims. The government has written off 300,000 of its own people.
All the basic rights that make a life are being stripped away from the Bahá'ís. They have no organisation as a community. They cannot meet to administer their affairs. Bahá'ís are banned from state jobs, they are often denied business licenses, firms are pressured to dismiss their Bahá'í employees. Those few Bahá'í businesses that are able to operate find that they are suddenly forced to close. The central figures of their Faith are slandered in the official press. Some officials have described the Bahá'ís as a cancer on society. Farmers are expelled from villages and their homes are bulldozed. Their cows are not allowed to graze with other cows because, as infidel cows, they are unclean.
The Islamic Republic is tightening the noose. The authorities are motivated by a senseless determination to impoverish the Bahá'í community. The only crime of these eleven Bahá'ís is to help thousands of young students further their education, to pursue their dreams, and to serve as productive citizens. Iran is the birthplace of the Bahá'í Faith and Iran's Bahá'ís naturally feel responsible to the country they love. They will not leave Iran because it is their home.
Concerned citizens, the media, civil society organisations, and fair-minded governments must intensify their challenge to the Iranian government. Bahá'ís are barred from work, from university, from the opportunity to contribute to the betterment of their homeland. But as the Bahá'í writings say, human beings are "a mine rich in gems of inestimable value ... education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures". The Bahá'ís want to educate themselves to serve society. Those who are denying Bahá'ís the possibility of receiving an education are trying to strangle the community. They do not realise that their hands are wrapped around their own necks.