Film shows fight for education by Iran’s Baha’is

To Light a Candle documentary spotlights work of underground Baha’i Institute for Higher Education in face of persecution

September 18, 2014

A new film will form part of a major campaign to highlight persecution of the Baha’i community in Iran and its continuing struggles to maintain the “underground” Baha’i Institute for Higher Education.

Privately screened in London last week, To Light a Candle is a documentary by Maziar Bahari. Iranian by birth, he returned there to work as a journalist. Despite avoiding “red-line” issues such as the treatment of the country’s several hundred thousand Baha’is, he was arrested in 2009 and jailed for four months. Once he was released and left Iran, he decided to tackle head-on all the topics that had hitherto been taboo.

The film traces the story back to the Islamic revolution of 1979, claiming that more than 200 Baha’is were executed in the new regime’s first five years. By 1987, Baha’is were not allowed to teach or study in universities, so some of those who had been fired joined forces to create the BIHE, using private houses as “unofficial campuses”. The rise of the internet in the 1990s allowed academics the world over to offer their services as teachers. At the same time, universities began to recognise BIHE degrees when graduates wanted to continue their studies elsewhere.

The film details how Iranian authorities responded with harassment and lurid advertisements suggesting that the BIHE was engaged in brainwashing and encouraging prostitution. A concerted attack took place in 2011, when a number of administrators were arrested for endangering security, promoting moral corruption and espionage.

Despite the election of Hassan Rouhani, generally regarded as more moderate than his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as Iran’s president in August 2013, Mr Bahari’s film indicates that things have only got worse. This is confirmed by a report on Iran’s compliance with the recommendations of the United Nations’ 2010 Universal Periodic Review, which the Baha’i International Community is due to present to the UN next month.

The report argues that “not a single recommendation that had been accepted by Iran with regards to the Iranian Baha’is has been implemented”, and that “the violations against them are now much more intense and severe than in 2010”. Not only has the total number of those imprisoned “steadily multiplied”, but “12 BIHE educators are currently serving prison terms ranging from four to five years”, while “students identified as members of this community continued to be barred and expelled from universities and vocational training institutes…On November 2013, agents of the Ministry of Intelligence raided one of the general science classes of the BIHE, which was being held in Karaj.”

Next month the Education Is Not a Crime website will be launched. It will allow people to send messages of support to the BIHE or messages of protest to Iran’s government. On 22 February 2015, as part of a proposed Education Is Not a Crime day, To Light a Candle will be screened at hundreds of universities across the world, including several UK institutions with BIHE graduates.

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