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23 June 2011

Iran: Religious Liberty

"Persecution has escalated to an unprecedented level," said Abe Ghaffari, executive director of Iranian Christians International. Iran has seen a sharp increase in the harassment of religious minorities including Christians and Baha'is as well as a general deterioration of human rights in the country. In March, this led the UN Human Rights Council to pass a resolution appointing a Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran.   

In May, 16 Baha'is were arrested in coordinated raids across Iran. All were employees at the Baha'i Institute of Higher Education (BIHE) - an initiative set up to educate young Baha'is who are banned from access to higher education by the state. Baha'i, a religion not recognised by the Iranian government, has between five and six million followers worldwide, 300,000 in Iran, making it the largest religious minority in the country. Although the BIHE is not able to issue degrees recognised by the Iranian regime, thousands of Baha'i students have been taught there, with many then accepted into graduate programs at universities overseas. One Baha'i told the Washington Post: "We know that Baha'is don't have any rights in Iran… even if we don't do anything wrong, they can arrest us." 

Elam Ministries, an organisation serving Christians in Iran, estimates that in the past six months, 285 believers have been arrested, many being detained for weeks and months and often enduring interrogations and psychological abuse. Iranian leaders have described the booming house church movement as the work of the 'enemy.' Some Christians, when released from prison, had to sign statements saying they would not attend church again.  

Persecution of the Baha'i community has been intensifying ever since the Islamic regime took power. The government has sought to close down Baha'i initiatives to establish their own education facilities including BIHE. After the raids in May 2011, professors from leading UK universities including Cambridge, Oxford, and the School Of African and Oriental Studies wrote an open letter to the Guardian stating that "it is official policy to block the development of the Baha'is. Young Baha'is who cannot study are denied a basic human right. Their desire to contribute to society is being strangled at the start of their adult lives". The right to education, included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and guaranteed by the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, which has been signed and ratified by Iran, stresses the equal access to higher education, with only academic entrance standards as legitimate admission criteria.  

Mervyn Thomas, chief executive of Evangelical Alliance member Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), said: "Despite being a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in which countries pledge to uphold international standards of religious freedom for all citizens, Iran is clearly targeting both the Baha'is and certain Christian communities solely on account of their beliefs."