A new Education Minister has been appointed in the Rouhani administration, and he appears poised to spearhead a new crackdown on access to education for religious minorities in Iran.
Denial of access to higher education has long been a prominent tactic used by government officials and supporters of the theocratic system to prevent the social and economic advancement of these communities.But generally speaking, this obstruction has not encompassed lower levels of education. A plan introduced last week by Mohsen Haji-Mirzaei may change this.
The Iranian constitution officially recognizes and ascribes rights to only three such minorities: Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians. This is not to say that members of those groups, or the Sunni Muslims who comprise a majority of the global Muslim population but a minority within the Islamic Republic, are immune to institutional discrimination or systemic mistreatment.
This is made clear by the volume of arrests warrants issued for participants in the Christian house church movement, the precipitous decline in the Jewish population since the Islamic revolution, and the disproportionate prison sentences and extrajudicial punishment meted out to Sunnis.
In a sign of this latter phenomenon, it was recently reported that Sunni prisoners of conscience had been attacked en masse by authorities at Rajai Shahr Prison after they staged a protest against poor conditions and a lack of access to medical treatment. The 39 prisoners in question are reportedly housed in two rooms, where they are forced to share one toilet and one telephone that can only be used for a total of two hours each day.
Such conditions are by no means unique, but Sunnis are among the groups more likely to face them on the basis of politically or religiously-motivated charges. The prisoners’ religious identity may have also contributed to guards’ decision to carry out a notably violent raid.
But to whatever extent the effects of prosecution and imprisonment are intensified by membership in a recognized religious minority, the same effects are made all the worse if a prisoner belongs to a faith community that is granted no rights under the constitution. Prominent among such groups are the Baha’i.
There are countless examples of the Baha’is mistreatment at the hands of the Iranian judiciary. But perhaps none are better recognized that the example of the Baha’i Seven, a group of leaders in the religious community who began serving 10-year sentences in 2008 on the basis of a range of vague charges including “insulting religious sanctities.”
Their experiences underlined the judiciary’s willingness to flout Iranian law in such cases. All seven prisoners were held in solitary confinement for more than 100 days after their arrest, while the expressed legal limit is 20. And all seven were made to wait nine months for any news of the charges against them despite the fact that the Iranian regime’s own law specifies that charges must be filed quickly if pre-trial detention is to continue.
When charges such as “propaganda against the system” are levied against Baha’i leaders and other adherents of minority religion, the justification often stems from authorities’ paranoia over proselytization. While three non-Muslim minorities are technically tolerated under the constitution, it is illegal for any Iranian Muslim to convert to another faith.
Violation of this law can even carry the death penalty, but in recent years the regime has largely focused its attention on suspected sources of conversion. This explains, for instance, the numerous recent reports of raids on house churches. It also ostensibly keeps enforcement activities focused on adult adherents and leaders of specific faith communities, who are naturally most capable of spreading their religion, and most capable of trying to do so.
But this is precisely what the latest measures by the Education Ministry threaten to change. Insofar as Project Mehr – an initiative undertaken months ago by Ministry offices throughout the country – conflates mere religious identity with proselytization, it could lead to children experiencing the denial of access to basic education, or worse. Mohsen Haji-Mirzaei declared on September 11 that “if students say that they follow a faith other than the country’s official religions and this is seen as proselytizing, they cannot continue attending school.”
In this sense, Project Mehr sets a new standard for what was already a very broad interpretation of proselytization. It also effectively mandates that members of religious minorities lie in order to remain a part of Iranian society, even as children. This is something that many college students, particularly from the Baha’i faith have experienced throughout the history of the Iranian regime.
College entrance paperwork has come to include a section demanding the student’s religious identity and offering only the officially recognized religions as options. Those who fail to choose one of those options are routinely expelled from universities, with officials citing an “incomplete file.”
This goes to show that Project Mehr also represents an escalation of the regime’s transparency when it comes to its religious discrimination.
Whereas the motive for denying minority faith groups access to higher education has often been masked by excuses and euphemisms, the standards put in place by the new Education Minister effectively encourage primary and secondary schools to expel students because their faith threatens to challenge regime’s religious dominance.
The brazenness of Haji-Mirzaei’s order arguably reflects an increasingly intense crackdown on religious minorities throughout Iranian society. Another example of this is the introduction of a bill to the Iranian parliament aimed at “punishing deviant sects.” Meanwhile, Iran Human Rights Monitor argues that the growing tensions between Iran and its foreign adversaries constitute a distraction that the regime is taking advantage of for the sake of increased repression.
But if Iran’s exploitation of those conditions leads to more blatant efforts at persecuting religious and ethnic minorities, international human rights advocates can be expected to recognize a new level of urgency in their efforts to galvanize resistance to Tehran’s abuses.