By Allan Rock and Lloyd Axworthy
With the eyes of the world on the Arab Spring, the populist struggles in Iran have faded from view. Yet some in Iran continue to face appalling levels of abuse, oppression, and injustice. The hopes for reform in Iran that were raised in June 2009 have proven empty, while the prisons remain full. Political prisoners are routinely tortured and some executed. Prominent among Iranian victims of hidden but unrelenting persecution are members of the Baha’i faith, Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority.
Canada has an important and enduring connection to this vulnerable group. Some 30 years ago, several thousand Baha’i refugees fled Iran to make Canada their home, settling in every province and territory and becoming proud and contributing Canadians.
There are now more than 30,000 Canadians of the Baha’i faith from many different backgrounds who have enriched our country by their citizenship. Following the Iranian Revolution, the Canadian government took steps at the United Nations and elsewhere to defend the rights of the Baha’i in Iran. Successive Canadian Governments have continued that leadership by sponsoring annual resolutions at the United Nations condemning Iran for its oppressive and inhumane policies.
The brutal regime in Tehran has turned a deaf ear. The Baha’i of Iran continue to be systematically persecuted. Over the past few years, many of their leaders have been detained and then sentenced to imprisonment following fraudulent trials. Hundreds more have been thrown into prison solely because of their beliefs. Baha’i businesses have been routinely shut down. Their cemeteries have been desecrated.
Among the many human rights violations that the Baha’i of Iran must endure is the systematic denial of access to higher education.
As Presidents of Canadian universities, we attach enormous value to access by young people to the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in tomorrow’s world. We regard education as the key to a better future for all peoples, and believe passionately that each person has the right to an education.
We are therefore deeply troubled that Iran’s Baha’i, among the most educated members of Iranian society before the revolution in 1979, are denied entry to universities and colleges in their own land. Admirably, rather than responding with violence, the Baha’i of Iran have decided to create their own informal education program in an act of cultural self-preservation.
Baha’i professors and professionals, sacked from their university and government positions, have teamed up to form the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE) to give their young people good quality and advanced, if informal, education.
One of the ways the Iran regime has targeted the Baha’i is by the arrest last May of 19 of those associated with the BIHE. Many of them remain in prison today, not knowing their fate. Their sole offence was to try to educate their young. Two of those arrested are graduates of the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Education. They were charged with teaching without valid accreditation. The Iranian authorities confiscated their U of O degrees and then alleged that they had never earned them.
The regime’s offensive conduct, in direct contravention of international treaties signed by the government of Iran, undermines the basic rights of the Baha’i along with the future of their youth.
Happily, the plight of the Baha’i is not being entirely ignored. Those who support human rights, who believe in access to education and who deplore repressive governments are increasingly speaking out on their behalf. A growing group of academics, university administrators and notable advocates for peace including Desmond Tutu, Romeo Dallaire and José Ramos-Horta are condemning the Iranian regime’s denial of the right to education.
We are proud to join them, and we encourage all Canadians to add their voice in calling on the Iranian government unconditionally to drop all charges against educators, to halt all further aggression towards the BIHE and to allow the Baha’i access to education. The Baha’i of Iran must know that in resisting the cruel oppression of those who persecute them, they do not stand alone.
This post first appeared on the The Huffington Post Canada website on January 5, 2012.