ATLANTA, GA -- October 23, 1998 -- Imagine your child being turned away from high school and university because of your religious beliefs. Even worse, imagine receiving a death sentence for those same beliefs, without the benefit of a trial or any due legal process. For those of us here in the United States, where religious freedom is taken for granted, this is difficult to imagine. For members of the Baha'i Faith in Iran, however, this is a reality.
"This is not just an issue that affects those in Iran," said Al Viller of the Atlanta Baha'i Information Center. "It has touched our entire community. Baha'is view all people as being from one human family. The persecution of our brothers and sisters in Iran is heart wrenching."
There are scores of Iranian Baha'is here in metro Atlanta, some of whom experienced persecution personally, escaping only with the clothes on their backs; others still have family in Iran.
"My parents lost everything when they escaped," said Shahla Ataei of Duluth. "Since we're one big family, it [the persecution] affects everyone. I feel something needs to be done." An Alpharetta resident, who asked to remain anonymous to protect those still in Iran, expressed that she is heartbroken because her parents remain in the country. "It's awful. You'd think after 20 years of revolution you could expect something to change, but the nightmare continues."
The National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States said in July that more than 200 elected community leaders had been executed in Iran since 1979, solely on account of religion. Baha'i students have been barred from universities since the early 1980s.
"As a Baha'i academic who has taught courses on Iranian religion," said Frank Lewis, a professor at Emory University, "I am especially concerned about the recent wave of arrests of Baha'is in Iran." Mr. Lewis explained that this demonstrates just how precarious the situation of the Baha'i community in that country remains. "Though Baha'is constitute the largest religious minority in Iran," Lewis continued, "they are deliberately excluded from civil protection in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran and have been denied basic rights in that country, including access to higher education, for an entire generation."
In July, Ruhollah Rowhani, 52, a medical supplies salesman and father of four, was executed by hanging because of his religious affiliation. A July 23 statement from the White House Press Secretary, on behalf of President Clinton, said: "The United States condemns this action, which violates the most basic international norms and universal standards of human rights....Furthermore, the United States deplores the gravely flawed process by which Mr. Rowhani was charged and executed"
On the same day, the State Department condemned the execution and added, "We have also called for the release of all those serving sentences for the peaceful expression of their religious or political beliefs. ...The President and Secretary [of State Madeleine] Albright have made it clear that the issue of freedom of conscience and belief is a central component of our human rights policy in Iran and around the world."
Recently, it has been confirmed that at least 36 faculty members of the Baha'i Institute of Higher Education were arrested between September 29th and October 3rd in cities across Iran. Most of these faculty members have now been released, but seven remain in custody.
The arrests were carried out by officers of the Iranian government's intelligence agency, the Ministry of Information, and also involved the seizure of textbooks, scientific papers and document records, some 70 computers and school furniture, including tables and benches.
Those who were arrested were asked to sign a document declaring that the Baha'i Institute of Higher Education had ceased to exist as of September 29th, and agreeing that they would no longer cooperate with it. The detainees refused to sign.
Intelligence officers also raided more than 500 Baha'i homes throughout Iran. When queried about the seizure of personal household effects, like television sets and furniture, the officers claimed that they had been authorized by the Attorney General to take anything they wished.
Iran has given birth to, or helped foster, a multiplicity of religious traditions, including Zoroastrians, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the Baha'i Faith. It is a matter of great irony that a tradition like the Baha'i Faith, which teaches the harmony of these various approaches to God, the fundamental unity of the human race, the importance of education and the responsibility of each individual to work toward the betterment of civilization and society, has become the object of such persecution.