New tactic obstructs Baha'i enrollments in Iranian universities

January 31, 2008

GENEVA, Switzerland — More than a million students take Iran's national university entrance examination each year. So Halaku Rahmaniyan was extremely pleased when he learned he had placed 76th from the top.

"I was happy, because I knew that it was a good result and that I could enter any subject in any university with that ranking," the 18-year-old student from Tehran wrote in a blog recently.

He did not understand why, then, he still had not been accepted anywhere by December. So Mr. Rahmaniyan called the national Education Measurement and Evaluation Organization (EMEO), which administers the exam, and spoke with a top official.

The official, too, was puzzled -- until Mr. Rahmaniyan said he was a Baha'i.

"Suddenly, after the word 'Baha'i,' he discontinued the call," wrote Mr. Rahmaniyan.

Then he received a letter from the EMEO.

"Respectfully, in response to your request for the issuance of a certificate of ranking for the year 2007, we would like to inform you that owing to you having an incomplete file, issuance of a certificate of ranking is not possible," stated the letter.

The story is one of many from Iran in recent months that highlight the latest tactic by the Iranian government in its long-running campaign to block Baha'is from access to higher education: to claim that their examination files are somehow "incomplete."

Almost 800 of the more than 1,000 Baha'is who sat for and properly completed the entrance exam in June 2007 have received word that their files are "incomplete" -- thus preventing their enrollment.

"These latest figures show that, despite its denials, the Iranian government is continuing its campaign to prevent Baha'is from going to university," said Diane Ala'i, the Baha'i International Community's representative to the United Nations in Geneva.

"The tactic of claiming that the examination files of Baha'i students are somehow 'incomplete' is yet another ruse by the government to act as if it respects human rights while covertly moving ahead with its persecution of Baha'is," said Ms. Ala'i, noting that none of the some 900 Baha'is who sat for the examination in 2006 received a notice of "incomplete files."

For more than 25 years, Baha'is have been banned from public and private universities in Iran. After pressure from the United Nations, governments, and academic, educational and human rights organizations, the government indicated in 2004 that it would stop asking university applicants about their religious affiliation, which seemed to open the door to Baha'i enrollments.

Each year since then, however, the government, which has been actively pursuing a campaign to identify all of the Baha'is in Iran and therefore is able to target Baha'i university students, has come up with some type of obstruction.

For the 2006-2007 academic year, the main tactic used to deprive Baha'is of access to higher education was expulsions.

As noted above, about 900 Baha'i students sat for the exam in June 2006. Nearly 500 passed and were listed as eligible to apply to university. Yet of the roughly 200 who ultimately managed to enroll in university in autumn 2006, the majority were gradually expelled over the course of the academic year.

The students were expelled as their identity as Baha'is became known to university officials.

That those expulsions reflect official government policy was confirmed in a confidential 2006 letter from Iran's Ministry of Science, Research and Technology instructing Iranian universities to expel any student who is discovered to be a Baha'i.

Baha'i students have been speaking out on blogs and in other forums. Nevertheless, the names have been withheld in the following accounts to protect their identity.

In October, a male student from Hamadan, who was expelled last year, told how many Baha'i students wished to educate themselves in part to help advance the development of their country.

"In order to better play our role in the reformation and distinction of this sacred land, we ask the respected officials to remove all obstacles for the entrance and continuation of the education of Baha'i students and lovers of knowledge at all universities in the country," he said.

In February, a young woman wrote to a high official to ask why she had been suddenly expelled from Payame Noor University.

"Of what crime have we been accused?" she asked. "After many years of yearning to receive a university education, I was ultimately given permission to enroll at a university this current year. Alas, I was expelled because of my religion after attending classes for a few weeks."

As noted, for the 2007-2008 academic calendar, of the more than 1,000 students who sat for and properly completed the entrance examination, nearly 800 were excluded because of "incomplete files."

Mr. Rahmaniyan learned of his high score from an Internet posting in the fall. "I ranked 54th in the regional quota and had come 76th nationwide," he wrote in a blog entry.

"Soon after, I found out that most of the Baha'i youth of my age group, were not even permitted to see their exam results because of having what had been announced on the Internet as 'incomplete file,'" he wrote. "My joy turned into sorrow...."

Ms. Ala'i noted that Mr. Rahmaniyan's case is not unusual. Many Baha'is this year, as in previous years, scored well on the national university entrance examination but were not allowed entry, even though other students with lower scores were allowed to enroll, she said.

"The low percentage of Baha'is in university in Iran is not because of low test scores or poor academic achievement," said Ms. Ala'i. "It is simply because the government has sought by various means to block Baha'is from enrolling or staying in university."

In 2004 and 2005, she said, the Baha'is were prevented from enrolling because the government sent back the examination papers with the word "Islam" printed in the data field for a prospective student's religion. That was unacceptable to Baha'is until it was clarified in 2006 and 2007 that that notation only meant the student had passed the exam's section on Islam, and did not indicate religious identity.

"Despite repeated protests by Western academics, university officials, and college students in many countries, not to mention resolutions at the United Nations and efforts by human rights organizations, Iran has clearly continued its campaign to prevent Baha'is from gaining access to higher education, even while they claim that no such discrimination exists.

"A serious effort by the government to end this injustice would be a first step towards showing the world its genuine commitment to international human rights standards and equal treatment of all its citizens regardless of their religious belief," said Ms. Ala'i.