Dear friends, please sign and share this petition for Iranian-American Amir Hekmati, who is reportedly facing calls for the death penalty in Iran and has been deprived of his right to due process.
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Baha’is denied access to state universities face a new threat to their institute. Matthew Reisz reports
Not welcome: Baha’i students say that their preparation for university entrance exams is done in the knowledge that their applications to Iranian state universities will likely be turned down because of their faith
Once, during Ramadan in the mid-1990s, Erfan Sabeti was on his way to an all-day genetics class at the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education in Tehran.
He had taken to wearing a tie to show he was not a hard-liner, though the Ayatollah Khomeini had just issued a fatwa saying that ties were a symbol of westernisation. As he was about to get into a taxi, he was stopped by revolutionary guards.
Young and fearless at the time, Sabeti immediately told them he was a Baha’i going to a meeting, where the accepted costume was suit and tie. So they took him to their headquarters and one of them said: “You Baha’is are very cheeky, because we’ve got you ‘on our tongue’. We could swallow you up whenever we wanted, if it wasn’t for pressure from the international community.”
“They interrogated me for three or four hours,” Sabeti recalls now, “cut my tie and fined me about £5. By lunchtime they let me go. My professor was very worried and almost fainted when I told the story, because of the risk that I’d been followed.”
“Mona” (not her real name) also remembers that she and fellow students of the BIHE had to keep the location of classes and labs secret in order to avoid raids by the government.
“We were particularly cautious about the labs, because we didn’t want our textbooks, equipment, photocopiers, computers and teaching materials to be confiscated.”
So what exactly is the BIHE? Why has it long been a target of official hostility in Iran, subject to a notable crackdown in 1998 and now under even more severe threat?
Though Baha’is tend to be well-educated and are the largest religious minority in Iran, where the faith was founded in the 19th century, it became obvious soon after the revolution of 1979 that they would not be able to study at universities.
This de facto ban was achieved in a variety of ways, though generally by requiring entrants to fill in an application form asking for their religious identity, and then excluding everybody who wrote down anything other than Muslim, Christian, Zoroastrian or Jew.
The BIHE was set up with charitable donations in 1987 as an informal and essentially volunteer home-schooling initiative to provide the kind of higher education that Iran’s Baha’is were being systematically denied in state universities.
“Tahirih”, who also asked to remain anonymous, explains what this meant: “My Baha’i friends and I knew that there was every likelihood that we couldn’t go to university. It was never easy, especially in the final years of secondary school, when all your classmates were getting ready for the university entrance exam. And finally the time came when we were rejected. There were only two options: leave the country to study, which was not at all easy, or enter the BIHE.”
For the love of knowledge
During the period from 1994 to 2000, when Sabeti was taking degrees in pharmacology and Baha’i studies, most of the teaching was by distance learning, though classes were held in private houses.
“We had weekly face-to-face interactions,” he notes, “not with lecturers but with a district representative we submitted assignments to and who passed on messages from the administration. Thirty or 40 of us met up on Thursdays for two or three hours to prepare assignments, to get timetables and marked papers back.”
Although a range of disciplines was on offer, the qualifications were not recognised in Iran, where it was and still is virtually impossible for Baha’is to gain work in the public sector. In such circumstances, explains Sabeti, people studied at the BIHE either “from love of knowledge or as an act of resilience, showing the regime that we were not going to remain idle”. There were around 900 students enrolled by the late 1990s.
“Everything was done to meet the need,” says Tahirih. At the heart of the network were “the (volunteer) Baha’i lecturers who were fired from (public) universities after the revolution and started the BIHE in the first place”.
Additional support came, where necessary, from “non-Baha’i lecturers who were paid to teach some of the courses”, “a big group of Baha’i lecturers from outside Iran, who teach online” and, if no one else was available, recent graduates of the institute. There has been a notable shift to online provision over the years.
Equally important has been the gradually increasing number of foreign universities, now around 60 in all, willing to accept the BIHE qualifications of those wanting to continue their studies, often with a view to an eventual return to Iran, although sometimes as a way of making new lives elsewhere.
Sabeti, for example, is now completing a PhD at Lancaster University about the comparative effects of globalisation on Mormonism and the Baha’i faith. He originally came there for a year to do a master’s in religion, culture and society, but was advised by the Baha’i community not to go back to Iran when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president in 2005.
A particularly ominous sign was that some of his friends had been imprisoned for several months and one of them was told by an interrogator that “Erfan is now drinking from the River Thames” (a stock phrase meaning spying for England).
“All Baha’i students are keen to go on to higher education,” argues Mona, “since education is emphasised in Baha’i principles and was highly encouraged by [the founder] Baha’u'llah. But the BIHE was the only hope for me and other Baha’i students to build our future. It has helped me and many others to have a future different from what the Iranian government expected and planned for us.”
Nobel laureates voice protest
Yet today a dark cloud hangs over the future of the institute. A number of people with links to it were arrested in May and put on trial in September, prompting Nobel peace laureates Desmond Tutu and Jose Ramos-Horta, president of East Timor, to write an open letter of protest under the title “Iran’s war against knowledge”, which called for their immediate release.
Yet on 20 October, explains Kishan Manocha, director of the Office of Public Affairs of the Baha’i Community of the UK, “it was reported that seven educators with the BIHE were sentenced to jail terms of four or five years apiece.
“The absurd charges levelled against them, including undermining national security, exemplify the government’s long-standing and systematic campaign of religious persecution against the Baha’i community.
“Education”, said Manocha, “is a fundamental human right, as essential as breathing, and to deny Iranian Baha’is the chance to study, so that they may serve their homeland, is unjust and a dereliction of duty by the authorities.”
“Saba”, another graduate of the institute who is now based in England but hopes to return to Iran, pays tribute to the “really good” education the BIHE was able to offer in very difficult circumstances. Yet she also looks forward to the day when it is no longer needed.
“There, everything was based on computers and online,” she says, which led to a pretty lonely student experience.
“Now I sometimes go to the library of my [British] university when I don’t have anything to do, and I just sit there and look at the campus, the students, the computers and books, and I feel so sorry for my friends back in Iran.
“That is one of the things we want from the Iranian government: let us enter the public universities. We need to be with others, to have a social life.”
Happy Yalda to you all!
Yalda, the Persian winter solstice celebration
Winter solstice that usually falls on December 21 has been celebrated by human communities throughout the world for millennia.
According to experts, near the winter solstice, the length of the day changes very slowly, as does the Sun’s height in the sky – one of the reasons why the long winter nights seem to go on forever!
In Iran, the winter solstice has been celebrated for centuries and it is called Shab-e yalda, which marks the arrival of winter, the birthday or rebirth of the sun, and the victory of light over darkness.
The festival dates back to the time when a majority of Persians were followers of Zoroastrianism prior to the advent of Islam.
Considered the longest night of the year, Yalda eve is the night when ancient Iranians celebrated the birth of Mithra, the goddess of light.
Ancient Persians believed that evil forces were dominant on the longest night of the year and that the next day belonged to the Lord of Wisdom, Ahura Mazda.
In addition to Iran, Central Asian countries such as Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and some Caucasian states such as Azerbaijan and Armenia share the same tradition and celebrate Yalda Night annually at this time of the year.
On this night, family members get together (most often in the house of the eldest member) and stay awake all night long. Dried nuts, watermelon and pomegranate are served, as supplications to God for increasing his bounties, as well classic poetry and old mythologies are read aloud.
Iranians believe those who begin winter by eating summer fruits would not fall ill during the cold season. Therefore, eating watermelons is one of the most important traditions in this night.
Pomegranates, placed on top of a fruit basket, are reminders of the cycle of life–the rebirth and revival of generations. The purple outer covering of a pomegranate symbolizes birth or dawn, and their bright red seeds the glow of life.
As days start lengthening, ancient Iranians believe that at the end of the first night of winter which coincides with December 21 this year, darkness is defeated by light and therefore they must celebrate the whole night. As the 13th-century Iranian poet Sa’di writes in his book Boustan: “The true morning will not come until the Yalda Night is gone.”
One of the other traditions of Yalda night, which has been added in recent centuries, is the recitation of the classic poetry of Hafez, the Iranian poet of 14th century CE. Each member of the family makes a wish and randomly opens the book and asks the eldest member of the family to read it aloud. What is expressed in that poem is believed to be the interpretation of the wish and whether and how it will come true. This is called Faal-e Hafez (Hafez Omen).
In most ancient cultures, including Persia, the start of the solar year has been marked with the celebration of the victory of light over darkness, and the renewal of the sun. For example, 4,000 years ago, Egyptians celebrated the rebirth of the sun at this time of the year. Their festival lasted for 12 days to reflect the 12 divisions in their solar calendar.
The ancient Roman festivals of Saturnalia (god of agriculture, Saturn) and Sol Invicta (sun god) are amongst the best known celebrations in the western world.
Coinciding with the beginning of the winter, Yalda is an occasion to celebrate the end of the crop season. It is today an event to thank the Lord for all blessings and to pray for prosperity in the next year.
Iran must stop persecuting minority religions – CNN.com
Dec. 21, 2011
Editor’s note: Roxana Saberi, an Iranian-American journalist, is the author of “Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran.”
(CNN) – In March 2009, when I was detained in Evin Prison in Iran, two evangelical Christians were arrested. I never met them but spotted them a few times through the barred window of my cell as they walked back and forth to the bathroom down the hall.
I would later learn that Maryam Rostampour and Marzieh Amirizadeh had converted from Islam to Christianity and faced charges of spreading propaganda against the Islamic Republic, insulting religious sanctities, and committing apostasy. They resisted severe pressure to renounce their faith, and in November 2009, after an international outcry, the two women went free.
News headlines are now highlighting the plight of another Iranian Christian accused of apostasy, or abandoning one’s religion. When Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani was 19, he converted from Islam to Christianity. In 2010, a provincial court sentenced him to death. This year, Iran’s Supreme Court ruled that the case should be reviewed and the sentence overturned if he recants his faith — a step Nadarkhani, 34, has so far refused to take.
Now, according to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, Iran’s judiciary has ordered the verdict to be delayed, possibly for one year. But Nadarkhani’s supporters hope sustained worldwide pressure will lead to his just and immediate release.
As international criticism has mounted, an Iranian official has alleged that Nadarkhani is being prosecuted not for his faith but for crimes including rape and extortion. Nadarkhani’s attorney, however, says the only charge the pastor has faced is apostasy, and court documents support this assertion.
Although Iran’s penal code does not include a specific provision for apostasy, judges are given a fairly wide degree of latitude to issue rulings based on their own interpretation of Islamic law. In the past this has led to punishments ranging from imprisonment to death. The last person officially executed in Iran for apostasy was Hossein Soodmand, a Pentecostal minister who converted from Islam before Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and was hanged in 1990.
Iranian officials often say their country’s recognized religious minorities (Christians, Jews, and adherents of the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism) enjoy freedoms equal to their Muslim counterparts. Iran’s constitution gives these three religious minorities certain rights, such as five seats in the 290-member parliament and the freedom to perform their religious rituals.
The constitution’s articles, however, are all set within the boundaries of Islam, and Islamic codes grant superior legal status to male Muslims.
Many non-Shiites in Iran have also complained of limits on education, work, and exercising their faith. Critics accuse the Islamic regime of having monitored, harassed, abducted, detained, tortured, and killed citizens based upon their religion. Since 1999, the U.S. State Department has designated Iran a “country of particular concern” because of religious repression. The State Department has focused on the treatment of Sufi and Sunni Muslims, Protestant evangelical Christians, Jews, Shiites who don’t share the government’s official views, and Baha’is, whose faith is not recognized by Iran’s regime.
Christian leaders in Iran have usually blunted their criticism of the regime, in part to avoid tensions. When I attended Christmas Eve Mass in Iran four years ago, I saw a few dozen worshipers, but I also heard that they had to get government permission to hold the service and were not allowed to proselytize. They had a Christian school, but it had to have a Muslim principal. They could print Christian texts but only with the authorities’ approval.
A number of Iranian Christians who recently left Iran have told me that since the country’s 2009 disputed presidential election, pressure on their communities has intensified, prompting many more Christians to emigrate. In April, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reported a rise in Iranian authorities raiding church services and harassing worshipers.
Evangelicals and other Protestants have been particularly targeted. Unlike Iran’s traditionally recognized Christian minorities, such as Armenians, Assyrians, and Chaldeans, evangelical churches hold their services in the Farsi language. Iranian authorities accuse them of spreading Christian writings in Farsi to convert Muslims.
“They are tough on us because we educate others,” a former pastor of an underground evangelical church in Iran told me on condition of anonymity. “They call it proselytizing, but we don’t proselytize. We discuss the realities that Jesus Christ talks about in the Bible, and we never speak about the Islamic Republic.”
Shortly after their release from prison, Maryam and Marzieh, the two Christian converts detained down the corridor from me, left Iran. If they stayed, they may have shared the tragic fate of the Rev. Mehdi Dibaj.
Dibaj, a Christian convert from Islam, was jailed for a decade and released in 1994 after international appeals. Soon afterward, he went missing. The authorities reported the discovery of his corpse in a wooded area west of Tehran. Iran’s government blamed an anti-regime group for the murder.
If the Iranian regime wants to tout religious freedom, it should respect its citizens’ right to decide one of life’s most personal choices: their spiritual path. A regime that claims to observe human rights and base its actions on the peaceful nature of Islam should also explain how peace would be attained by executing a man whose only crime is his faith.
By releasing Youcef Nadarkhani before Christmas, Tehran would take an important step toward respect for human rights and would give his wife and children an unforgettable gift.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Roxana Saberi.
By Lee Ferran
Dec. 19, 2011
The father of the Iranian-American who appeared to confess to being a spy for the CIA on Iranian television called the allegations of espionage “a bunch of lies” and said he’s convinced the Iranian government forced his son to lie.
Amir Mirzaei Hekmati, a 28-year-old U.S.-raised dual citizen of Iran and America, was featured on an Iranian television program Sunday, saying he had been trained in intelligence by the U.S. military and sent to Tehran to become a double agent for the CIA from within the intelligence ministry.
“It was their [the CIA's] plan to first burn some useful information, give it to them [the Iranians] and let Iran’s Intelligence Ministry think that this is good material,” Hekmati says in accentless American English in the video.
However, an unidentified announcer claims Iran’s intelligence apparatus detected the plot and arrested Hekmati. In addition to the alleged confession, Iranian television showed images of Hekmati sometimes in uniform posing with weapons and American military officers. In another pair of images, identity cards with Hekmati’s name and picture identify him first as a U.S. Army soldier and then an “army contractor.”
But Hekmati’s father, Ali Hekmati, a biology professor at Mott Community College in Flint, Mich., told ABC News any idea that his son is a spy is “absolutely, positively” wrong.
“My son is no spy. He is innocent. He’s a good fellow, a good citizen, a good man,” Hekmati said in an exclusive interview. “These are all unfounded allegations and a bunch of lies.”
Ali Hekmati said his son did join the military in 2001, but served the U.S. Marines, not the Army, and worked in linguistics as an Arabic translator, not in military intelligence. According to his father, Amir Hekmati never did any intelligence work for the Pentagon or the CIA. Public records show a man with Hekmati’s first and last name apparently lived for years at or near prominent American military bases, including one home less than half a mile from the Defense Language Institute in Monterrey, Calif. At ABC News’ request, the U.S. Marines are checking service records for possible information on Hekmati. After the military, Amir Hekmati went to work for a private security contractor, Ali Hekmati said.
The CIA declined to comment for this report, but one U.S. official said, “Whoever this young American is, he is obviously under duress and in the hands of an enemy. His safety is paramount.”
Ali Hekmati said that since his son’s arrest, he’s had no direct contact and Amir was only allowed a couple visits by his Iranian grandmothers while in custody. He has not been provided a lawyer, Ali Hekmati said.
“[I'm] absolutely afraid to death,” the elder Hekmati said. “I don’t know what they’re going to do with him.”
Ali Hekmati said his relatives contacted the U.S. State Department after his son was arrested and were told the government would investigate. State Deptartment spokesperson Victoria Nuland said today the State Department has been providing consular assistance to Hekmati’s family, who first reported his detention in September. Nuland declined to elaborate on Hekmati’s wellbeing, citing privacy concerns. The U.S. has requested access to Hekmati but has yet to receive it, Nuland said.
ABC News’ Rym Momtaz, Gerard Middleton and Kirit Radia contributed to this report.
Reporters Without Borders condemns the unremitting crackdown on journalists and the media in Iran. The Tehran monthly Chashm Andaz has been closed down and the weekly Saymareh, in Kudasht in the western province of Lorestan, has been forced to cease activity as a result of judicial pressure.
The press freedom organization has also learned that a journalist has been jailed and the life of a blogger is in danger after he went on hunger strike in prison.
On 7 December Lotfolah Meysami, the managing editor of Chashm Andaz (“Panorama” in Farsi) was told by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance that his magazine’s licence had been withdrawn as a result of an order issued by the Tehran revolutionary court on 23 November.
Meysami himself was banned from working as a journalist for five years. He protested against the decision, made at a hearing of which he was not informed. Meysami has been summoned before Tehran courts several times in recent years.
Saymareh, an influential weekly in the west of the country, was forced to cease its activities as a result of pressure by local political leaders. In its 18 September edition, it published a humorous article under the headline “Only dictators and donkeys make no mistakes”, which attacked dictators and their politics.
Several local leaders said the article insulted the sacredness of Islam. They began a campaign of harassment and launched proceedings against the newspaper.
Saymareh decided to suspend publication pending the outcome of the case. At a hearing on 27 November, the jury did not allow the newspaper’s lawyer to finish his defence plea.
“This is a parody of justice,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The courts in the Islamic Republic issue judgements on the media in the absence of the accused and juries are on the side of the organs of repression.
“Journalists are arrested on the orders of biased courts, held in solitary confinement and deprived of their rights and any opportunity for redress. Their lives are endangered.”
The blogger Hossein Ronaghi Maleki, arrested a year ago and sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment, has been on hunger strike since 12 December in protest against the conditions of his detention. Maleki, a human rights activist, has undergone two kidney operations and is in a frail condition, yet he has not received the necessary medical treatment and his life is now in danger.
“The persecution of this netizen by the court system and the Intelligence Ministry is unacceptable,” Reporters Without Borders said. “We hold the head of the judiciary, Sadegh Amoli Larijani, the intelligence minister, Heydar Moslehi, and the Tehran chief prosecutor, Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi, responsible for his life.”
Reporters Without Borders has learned of the arrest of Farshad Ghorbanpour, a journalist who has written for reformist newspapers such as Sharvand Emrooz (closed down in 2009), Farhikhtegan andMehrnameh.
He was previously sentenced to one year’s imprisonment and fined 50 million rials (4,000 euros) by the Tehran revolutionary court for anti-government propaganda, acting against national security and illegally receiving money from foreign-based news organizations. The day after his arrest he told his family he was being transferred to the capital’s Evin prison.
The blogger Rojin Mohammadi, arrested in Tehran on 21 November after she was summoned to the prosecutor’s office in Evin prison, was released on 10 December.