IRAN: University to continue despite raids, arrests
"We will continue. There is a strong commitment by students and faculty to carry on. We cannot leave our students unable to go to universities and colleges," said a US-based Iranian professor who teaches online humanities degree courses for BIHE, and who spoke to University World News on condition of anonymity.
BIHE was founded in 1987 as a community initiative to give Baha'i students an education, after the Islamic revolution in Iran banned students of non-recognised religions from public universities. The Baha'i faith is not officially recognised as a religion in Iran, where the Baha'i number around 300,000.
Many BIHE classes have been held in professors' homes and community centres around Iran. In the last seven years many classes have also been held online, with exiled Iranian professors teaching students inside and outside Iran, although face-to-face classes continue in Iranian cities.
An official Iranian newspaper reported on 23 May that a number of Baha'i had been arrested for running an "online Baha'i university" aimed at propagating their faith. The newspaper said arrests had been made and the network dismantled.
"Buildings used as laboratories and for academic purposes in Tehran have also been closed," BIHE reported on its website.
Iranian security forces reportedly raided and shut down a science and research centre operated by BIHE at Iran's Open University, confiscating computers and other materials.
The Baha'i international community said there had also been a series of coordinated raids in Tehran, Karaj, Isfahan and Shiraz.
"Agents of the Ministry of Information, that is, the secret service, entered the homes [of academics] on the same day and ransacked them, taking away computers and papers and other belongings," Diane Ala'i, the Baha'i international community representative to the United Nations in Geneva, told University World News.
She said those arrested in the latest raids were affiliated with BIHE, which operates openly, even though most of the professors who provide education online and face-to-face had been sacked from their university jobs and were not allowed to take up any government post as a result of persecution of the religious minority.
BIHE currently has some 3,000 students, according to one source, and it offers humanities and sciences bachelors degrees including in chemistry, biology, pharmacology, civil engineering, computer science, psychology, law, literature and accounting.
Laboratories have set up in privately owned commercial buildings in Tehran, the addresses known only to enrolled students who are asked not to come and go in large groups that might call attention to the institution.
"But this is not an underground university. The Iranian authorities have known it exists and indeed it is not the first time there have been raids on BIHE," Ala'i told University World News. "They are now trying to shut down the community's efforts to provide its youth with higher education through alternative means."
The institute was targeted in a series of raids and arrests in 1998, when it had around 900 students and 150 professors.
"This multi-city coordinated raid on an alternative university demonstrates the sad lengths to which Iranian authorities will go to prevent Baha'i academic advancement," said Hadi Ghaemi of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. "Not only are Baha'is barred from conventional universities in Iran but the government also seeks to eliminate even community-based efforts that provide higher education."
Seyed Ali Raeis Sadati, Iran's Deputy Minister of Justice, claimed during the periodic review of Iran's human rights at the UN Human Rights Council last year: "Limitations against some of these Baha'i university students have nothing to do with their religious beliefs.
"This limitation is because they have failed to meet the entrance requirements to university and the fact that they have been members of an illegal cult with anti-human rights activities."
But a US-based Iranian professor, who teaches some of the institute's courses, said all the students at BIHE had to pass a very rigorous admissions test equivalent to the Iranian national admissions examination.
"When our students graduate they apply to graduate courses at institutions of higher education in Europe and the US. We have had students who went on to Harvard, McGill and Carlton Universities. We have former students who now have PhDs, or who are doctors or lawyers."
However, some students have difficulty getting into normal universities, as the institution is not recognised, said the professor, who has been involved voluntarily since BIHE's inception.
"The Iranian government has a cultural agenda. They want to prevent future generations of Baha'is from becoming educated and socially mobile," he said. "This is the latest in a series of attacks on the community because this institution is the remaining functioning collective effort of the community. Everything else has been destroyed by them.
"This is not a religious seminary but a science-based institution. Attacking it is not a religious issue but a human rights issue. Every human being has a right to learn."
* An Iranian journalist who cannot be named also contributed to this report.