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Forum to discuss persecution of Baha'i

Local Baha'i and Amnesty International members will join in a forum this month to support the right of Baha'i to seek higher education in Iran, something they are now being jailed for.

The forum at 5 p.m. today in the Rogue River Room of Stevenson Union at Southern Oregon University, will discuss persecution of Baha'i under the current Shia Muslim government — and how Iranian Baha'i students can transfer credits to the United States from their alternative Baha'i Institute for Higher Education.

Although Iran in the past has signed the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Baha'i members say it is in violation of it, as the government seeks to eliminate religious minorities. Government officials arrest Baha'i who seek higher education, said panelist Dr. David Young of Grants Pass, a Baha'i and member of the Baha'i National Committee.

The Iran government has been responsive to international pressure and has reduced harsh sentences, so American Baha'i seek to hold forums and letter-writing campaigns to Congress and the Iran ambassador at the U.N., said Young. Resolutions in Congress condemning the persecution are pending, he added.

Baha'i Institute students in Iran have classes about one week a month and are now holding online classes, said Young, adding that "the government identifies the volunteer professors and the students, seizes their computers and books and is imprisoning them, calling them a nest of spies for the U.S., Israel and Britain."

Many students of the institute come to the United States to finish their education and are seeking accreditation of their course work, says Young. The struggle for education of Baha'i, the largest religious minority in Iran, is documented in the film "Education Under Fire," produced by Amnesty International. The 30-minute film will be shown at the forum.

"It's an issue that involves all the people in Iran who are being persecuted," said Dennis Remick of Ashland, a Baha'i and co-organizer of the forum. "They're being arrested and put in Evin Prison for four to five years. ... U.N. peacekeepers say the situation is similar to Rwanda, with a slow build-up to genocide."

Panelist Robin McFarland of Central Point, an online English teacher of 60 institute students, said several of her students have been arrested — and that she and Kathleen Gamer of Ashland, the president of the SOU United Nations Club and former Iran resident, will be talking to university officials about honoring institute credits.

"Harvard has started accepting BIHE credits. It's got huge acceptance all over the world now," said Gamer. "At the forum, we'll challenge SOU to do it also."

SOU does not recognize credits from BIHE because the school is not listed by the International Association of Universities, a UNESCO organization, said J. Kelton Render, SOU Coordinator of International Admissions and Advising.

An applicant, he said, would have to "provide BIHE documentation such as a school catalog, brochure, course syllabi, course outlines, then we may be able to consider transferring the credits." An applicant could also get a transcript evaluation from the National Association of Credit Evaluation Services, he said.

The Islamic Republic of Iran seeks to "purify" the country of religious minorities in anticipation of the return of the lineage of the prophet Muhammad, said Young, but Baha'i is seen as potentially setting a precedent.

"If Baha'i are given their due under Islam and before world opinion, then everyone in Iran will have their rights, especially including women."

The overthrow of dictators in 2010's "Arab Spring," has made Iranian repression increase, said Young, because they fear it will happen there.

"We're absolutely certain that when the world focuses on the government of Iran that its hand will be stayed. When there's an outcry and the world spotlight is focused on them — and on the people sentenced to death — the government has backed off on their travesties of justice. They fear isolation. They need international support and if the entire world is disgusted, they can't get it." Panelist and SOU anthropology Prof. James Phillips said he will highlight the threats to education by dictators around the world, especially in Latin America.

"Dictatorial governments don't like education because educated people think too much and oppose repression," said Phillips.

The forum, sponsored by the SOU United Nations Club and Amnesty International of Southern Oregon, is free and open to the public.

Email freelance writer John Darling at jdarling@jeffnet.org.