Since 1979, more than 200 members of the Baha'i community of Iran, which forms the country's largest religious minority, have been executed for their beliefs, most recently in July of this year. Two weeks ago, prison authorities in Mashhad confirmed the death sentences of two Iranian Baha'is, while Iranian intelligence officers plundered 500 Baha'i homes throughout the country and arrested at least 36 Baha'i teachers and professors in 14 cities, seven of whom remain in custody.
The recent wave of attacks launched against the Baha'i minority by Iranian officials should be of grave concern to all members of the Harvard community. This amplification of Iran's ongoing efforts to destroy the country's Baha'i community constitutes a violation of human rights that takes the particularly insidious form of a full-scale assault on an institution dedicated to higher education.
The individuals chosen for harassment and arrest were all professors and teachers at an informal home-based Baha'i university, which had come into existence because the Iranian government had barred Baha'is from the country's universities since the 1979 revolution solely because of their religious beliefs.
The raids and 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 some 70 computers. 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 Sept. 29 and agreeing that they would no longer cooperate with it. The detainees refused to sign the document.
The new wave of death sentences, arrests and harassment bear all the marks of a centrally orchestrated campaign intended to further the declared policy of the Iranian Government to strangle the Baha'i community economically, intellectually and spiritually, in a coercive attempt to force its members' conversion to Islam. This policy became widely known in 1993 when it was accidentally revealed that the Iranian Supreme Revolutionary Council had earlier adopted a position on "The Baha'i Question" in a secret document dated Feb. 25, 1991, and signed by Ayatollah Khamenei. The secret document declared that Baha'is must be expelled from universities, denied employment and their "cultural roots" outside Iran destroyed. (The 100,000 American Baha'is received special mention, as did Brazil, Canada and Germany.)
To those ends, Iran has banned Baha'i administrative institutions, disrupted Baha'i children's classes, denied pensions, confiscated properties and denied Baha'is admission to universities. It is a bitter irony, not previously unknown to history, that the Iranian Baha'is whose religion's central teaching is love of humanity, should be the victim of this inhumane hatred. Iranian President Khatami's recent calls for a dialogue with the West and an opening of a strong and free civil society in Iran had fostered much optimism about Iran's future, even facilitating the reestablishment of relations with the United Kingdom.
However, the events of the past week belie any such optimism and call into question Iran's full commitment to the establishment of such a civil society. No "civil society" worth that name shall exist in Iran until all Iranian citizens--including Baha'is--are admitted as full and equal members.