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UF's Baha'i Unity Club to discuss injustice in Iran

By L. Tracey Kabali
Contributing Writer

For followers of the Baha'i faith, the belief that everyone is "entitled to a sound, basic education" is more than a religious tenet - it is something Baha'is are willing to die for.

But the Iranian government threatened that tenet in October when it closed the Baha'i Institute of Higher Learning, also known as the Open University.

The action has prompted members of UF's Baha'i Unity club, who said they are outraged and saddened by the Iranian government, to hold a panel discussion tonight at 7:30 at the Civic Media Center.

"The school was not hurting the government in any way," said Shaheen Moajer, an anthropology senior and UF Baha'i Unity club member who compared the university's plight to that of blacks in South Africa during apartheid. "This is a brutal approach to oppression and a violation of human rights. It's saddening and scary that the world is letting this happen."

Two months ago, the Iranian government raided more than 500 homes, destroying personal property and any materials associated with the school.

Thirty-six professors were jailed - most were released - and two others were executed for teaching courses in calculus, physics, literature and psychology.

Started largely as a correspondence school, the Open University offers credit through established colleges in the United States and Europe.

In time, course offerings were developed internally, and the Open University offered bachelor's degrees in 10 subjects.

"The purpose (for the school) was for the students to get the knowledge," said Farhad Seysan, a UF civil engineering senior and an Iranian native who attended the Open University before his escape from Iran in 1993.

Alternative education

After the revolution in 1979, the Iranian government outlawed the Baha'i faith, making it a crime punishable by imprisonment and - many times - death.

Since 1980, more than 200 members of the Baha'i faith have been executed and thousands more imprisoned, according to the National Baha'i Information Center in Illinois.

"They discovered just killing us is not working," said Seysan. "They want to keep Baha'is down by limiting education."

Following the revolution, Iranian officials barred admission to students and fired professors of the Baha'i faith within the government's schools.

Facing the reality of future uneducated generations, the Open University was established in 1987.

"It seems like an injustice," said Larry Schwandes, a staff biologist in UF's Soil and Water Science Department and a member of the Baha'i faith. "Since they couldn't attend regular school ... they tried obeying the law by not sending their kids to school. They should have a right to teach their kids in their own homes."

The Open University's mission is purely academic, and no religious classes are taught.

At the time Seysan attended the university, no degrees were awarded. The school prepared students for academic excellence, he said, adding he was able to exempt Calculus I and II after coming to UF.

Open University students studied on their own, and two weeks of every semester the unemployed professors and students gathered in homes from 8 a.m. to about 6 p.m. to summarize and clear up any questions the students may have had about their studies.

Professors received no pay and students paid only for supplies. No tuition was charged.

Dying for an education

The Iranian government still refuses to employ anyone of the Baha'i faith,i including professors in the university system.

And because declaring one's religion on an application in Iran is as vital as a social security number in the United States, members of the Baha'i Faith have no easy choices, Seysan said.

Escaping from Iran is an option only if a person has enough money and the right connections to settle in another country.

"Escaping is very dangerous," said Seysan, recounting his escape from the country five years ago. "I saw a friend of mine's father shot, trying to cross the border."

Escapees stay only one day in the village and are then taken to several larger cities in Turkey before they go to the United Nations office and are declared refugees. Escapees then receive passports and visas.

The entire process took Seysan about 18 months. The Iranian government has become less severe in their treatment of escapees who are caught, Seysan said.

"Now they take all your property, and you go to prison for some years," he said. "They usually don't kill now."

Raising awareness

Power in the government lies with a majority of religiously trained political leaders, Seysan said.

Few leaders have degrees in subjects such as economics or political science.

"The former, and right now the current president, has no university degree. ... The foreign minister of Iran, he got his degree from one of the universities in the (United States), but that's not the norm," Seysan said.

The Iranian government is in violation of Article 13 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Culture Rights by denying members of the Baha'i faith access to higher education, protesters said.

"We need to expose them," Seysan said. "They (the government) are like bugs when the light is on them; they run."

Samim Anghaie, a UF nuclear engineering science professor, on Friday began sending e-mails regarding the plight of the Open University to his fellow faculty members and has since received more than 100 responses.

According to the Iranian government, the Baha'is are not entitled to any rights, said Anghaie, who is from Iran. But "Baha'is live everywhere in the world," he said. "Once Iran hears the outrage of people around the world, the school will open again."

His peers agree the impetus for change lies in public awareness of the Baha'is' plight.

"The only way to stop this injustice is for people in the educational systems around the world to speak out," Moajer said.

©Copyright 1998, The Alligator

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