On March 9, 66 scholars and academic specialists in the fields of Middle Eastern and Iranian studies signed a statement calling on Iran to put an end to human rights abuses against Bahá’ís in Iran. The statement, “A Call to Stop the Persecution of Bahá’ís in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” highlighted attacks on Bahá’í homes, denial of access to education, campaigns of intimidation, financial and economic strangulation and desecration of Bahá’í cemeteries. It noted “evidence of an ongoing campaign to deprive the Bahá’ís of Iran of their fundamental human rights” that has “been greatly escalating in recent months.” Among the signatories were two Georgetown professors, John Esposito and Mehran Kamrava.

Why was the statement made now, and why is it significant that it was issued by academics? The Bahá’í community has been persecuted in Iran since the religion was founded in that country (then called Persia) in the mid-19th century; the government has made the elimination of the Bahá’í community policy since 1979. In 1991, the government adopted a memorandum, uncovered by the United Nations Human Rights Commission and published in 1993, that provides guidelines for dealing with the Bahá’ís so that “their progress and development shall be blocked.” In recent years, however, the campaign has intensified to a level not seen since the 1980s.

In 2006, Amnesty International published a letter from Iranian military headquarters, dated Oct. 29, 2005, that called on Iranian intelligence and police units, as well as the Revolutionary Guard, to “identify” and “monitor” Bahá’ís nationwide.

ore recently, the seven Bahá’ís who serve as the de facto religious leaders of the community have been charged with “espionage for Israel, insulting religious sanctities and propaganda against the Islamic Republic.” On Feb. 13, the U.S. State Department called these charges “baseless” and affirmed that the leaders are being held solely because of their religious beliefs. Their legal counsel, Nobel laureate and Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi, has been denied access to her clients and their files. A trial could take place at any time.

Last year, the State Department noted “a crackdown against women’s rights reformers, ethnic minority rights activists, student activists and religious minorities” and “[v]iolence and legal and societal discrimination against women, ethnic and religious minorities and homosexuals.” The treatment of the Bahá’ís serves as an important bellwether for the human rights situation in Iran overall, because members of the Bahá’í community, Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority, have no legal protection.

This year, Iran’s attorney general emphasized the unprotected status of the country’s Bahá’ís in a letter to the minister of intelligence that was published on Feb. 14.

In recent weeks, numerous governments and human rights organizations have condemned the worsening treatment of the Bahá’ís in Iran. In Congress, concurrent resolutions have been introduced to call on the Iranian government to release all prisoners who are being held because of their religious beliefs.

It is particularly fitting that a statement has been made by scholars. Iran’s treatment of the Bahá’ís represents an effort to control the thoughts and religious practices of its citizens and stamp out ideas that conflict with the government’s orthodox views, an attack on the principles of intellectual freedom that universities exist to uphold.

Bahá’ís have always been offered the restoration of their rights if they recant their beliefs. The State Department noted in its 2008 International Religious Freedom Report that Iran “continued to imprison and detain Bahá’ís based on their religious beliefs. The government arbitrarily arrested Bahá’ís and charged them with violating Islamic Penal Code Articles 500 and 698, relating to activities against the state and spreading falsehoods, respectively.” On Mar. 8 this year, an Iranian news agency reported that Iran’s parliament, the Majlis, had passed a budget that included 30 billion rials ($3.1 million) for “promotion of teaching and dispatch of teachers to combat Satan-worshipers, Sufis and Bahá’ís.”

The primary reason for the government’s oppressive policy toward the Bahá’ís is theological: The Bahá’ís are considered heretics because they adhere to a religion which came after Islam. The social beliefs of the Bahá’ís, which emphasize equality, democratic principles and the independent investigation of truth, are just as anathema. The imprisoned national leadership includes both women and men and, before 1983, the leadership was freely elected.

It is significant that academics have raised these issues and that this story is being told in a student newspaper. In Iran, Bahá’ís have been denied access to higher education since 1980. In 2006, a letter from the Central Security Office of Iran’s Ministry of Science, Research and Technology instructed 81 Iranian universities to expel any student who is discovered to be a Bahá’í. We know about these documents because brave Iranians, most of them Muslim, have stood up for justice. In the United States, taking that stand is less dangerous but just as important.

Aaron Emmel is a graduate student in peace and security studies in the School of Foreign Service.

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