For more than 160 years, Iranian Baha’i have faced religious persecution for their beliefs, facing expulsion from civil, government and educational institutions.
In response to this repression, the Baha’i formed their own system of underground education known as the Baha’i Institute of Higher Education (BIHE), which has grown into an international organization.
Diane Rothaar is a member of the Baha’i faith, and is helping to organizing a Feb. 27 art exhibit at the Bothell library to raise awareness in conjunction with the international #notacrime campaign, sponsored by the Baha’i Community of Snohomish County.
“For us, education is an extremely important topic,” she said. “One of the principals of our faith is compulsory education, so it really hits home that people in the cradle of our faith, and many of use still have relatives (there), are not allowed to get an education.”
The #notacrime campaign uses art as a medium to bring to light the plight of the Iranian Baha’i.
Formed in 1844, the Iranian Baha’i were persecuted from the beginning, Rothaar said, with some 20,000 killed in the first few years after the religion’s inception.
“Local communities have been asked to respond in art to the issue, as a sounding of more voices,” Rothaar said. “All over the world there are artists, typically street artists, doing very large murals.”
Their faith, she said, views the prophet Muhammad as the most recent prophet in a long line, but does not consider him the last prophet, in contrast with Islam which does. Many clerics in Iran view the Baha’i as heretics, she said.
Following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, persecution increased, prompting an international reaction in 1983 when a group of 10 women were executed for teaching Baha’i children, Rothaar said.
“At that point, the strategy changed,” Rothaar said. “When the world responds, the Iranian government responds, and so the attacks then became more subtle.”
These included barring those who identify as Baha’i from entering any sort of education institutions.
With the rise of the internet, the BIHE made the transition to digital, eschewing pen-and-paper correspondence it had primarily been relying on.
This resulted in an online college, though it is unaccredited, at least one Washington university, Pacific Lutheran University, accepts it’s degrees for applicants to their masters programs.
Dean Churchill has been volunteering with the BIHE for a few years. He holds a doctorate in computer engineering from the University of Miami, where he taught for seven years after he gradated.
In his view, the education BIHE graduates receive is top notch.
“I think it’s just about the same that you’d get at any standard university or college in the West,” he said.
Churchill has worked with a handful of students who have reached out to him, and has helped design curriculum for a research class.
In his mind, one of the main impediments towards the Institute gaining accreditation is its underground nature. Many of the BIHE faculty and students live in Iran, where they would face increased persecution if their involvement was made known.
“It’s incredulous that a country as supposedly advanced as Iran… that claims to be free and open actually isn’t if you don’t belong to the proper religion,” he said.
This Saturday in Bothell, local artists, many of who will be children Rothaar said, will be showcasing their works of art, joining a worldwide movement of artists from all around the world, according to the #notacrime website.
And for many Baha’i living regionally, this issue is one that hits close to home.
“We have Baha’i as neighbors,” Rothaar said. “And some of our neighbors have family still there. Some of our neighbors have family that are in jail, some of our neighbors know people that have been executed.”
The exhibit will be held at the Bothell library on Feb. 27.