Persecuted Baha’i Doctors and the Creation of Iran’s Informal Baha’i University

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Kian Sabeti

Health workers are a critical part of any society and, in Iran, hundreds of Iranian Baha’i doctors and scientists contributed to the country’s development. But today there are almost no Iranian Baha’i doctors and nurse in Iran; instead, they live in other countries around the world, treating their patients, where they are admired and praised by their patients. The one country where they cannot do their work is Iran.

Many of these doctors and nurses – who studied and served in Iran – lost their jobs after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. They were expelled from the universities and their public sector jobs, barred from practicing medicine, jailed and tortured, and a considerable number of them were executed by the new Islamic Republic.

The crime of these Baha’i doctors, nurses and other health workers was their faith in a religion that the rulers of the Islamic Republic believe is a “deviant” faith. In an ongoing series, IranWire tells the stories of some of these Iranian Baha’i doctors and nurses, including these stories of Drs. Bahram Afnan, Esmail Talebian and Firouzeh Shafizadeh.

If you know a Baha’i health worker and have a first-hand story of his or her life, let IranWire know.

Summoning, arresting and executing prominent Iranian Baha’is across Iran was key to the early Islamic Republic’s systematic crackdown on minorities in the years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Many famous doctors who were part of the Baha’i community – people who were trusted by their patients, ordinary Iranian citizens – were among those who lost their lives in these years.

Dr. Bahram Afnan, a cardiologist and vice president of Shafa Hospital in Shiraz, was arrested by Intelligence Ministry agents on the afternoon of October 23, 1982, as he travelled to his office. Eight months later, on June 16, 1983, at the age of 48, Dr. Afnan and five other Baha’i citizens were handed over to the death squad in Adel Abad prison in Shiraz and executed. He had been tortured and, because of the abuse he received, had suffered two strokes during his imprisonment.

Dr. Afnan’s widow, Ginous Afnan, writing in her memoirs and quoting one of her husband’s cellmates, said: “One day, they threw him into the cell, wounded, bloody, torn and unconscious. The wounds made by the cables were so deep that it was very difficult for him to breathe, due to the lack of air inside the cell. Two days later, when his condition improved a little, they took him to the basement again, and this time he suffered a second stroke under torture. But when torture was fruitless, they threw a sack filled with horse dung over Dr. Afnan’s half-dead body, the wounds torn and exposed from [flaying by] copper wire. The painful purulent infections resulting from contamination and severe fever almost destroyed Dr. Afnan’s body. They had to take him to a hospital outside the prison for treatment.”

A further example of the persecution of Baha’is after the Islamic Revolution can be found in an advertisement published in the Khorasan newspaper, on November 23, 1981, which stated that 13 Baha’i citizens had been summoned to Branch 4 of the Islamic Revolutionary Prosecutor’s Office in Mashhad. Nine of them were well-known doctors in the city; Dr. Attaullah Eshraq, Dr. Teymour Pirmoradi, Dr. Manouchehr Mofidi (pediatrician), Dr. Fereydoun Rahimi (pediatrician), Dr. Enayatollah Zafari, Dr. Rahmatollah Eshraghi, Dr. Manouchehr Rezvani (anesthesiologist), Dr. Houyeh Rezvani (clinical laboratory specialist), and Dr. Houshmand Rezvani (internist). Fifteen days after the publication, all 13 Baha’is were accused of “corruption” by an unknown (probably revolutionary) court and their assets were confiscated.

Many members of the Iranian Baha’i community had for generations been part of a pioneering sector in Iranian society, becoming trained in the medical and physical sciences, as well as other technical fields, even despite the restrictions that existed under the Pahlavi regime. Experts, academics, entrepreneurs and others are critical assets in a developing society and Baha’is played a key role in Iran’s century development. Many had completed medical or scientific studies abroad and had returned to Iran to help develop their homeland – and were trusted and relied upon by their fellow Iranians.

But since 1979, the Islamic Republic has systematically worked to prevent the Baha’i community and its experts and academics, especially doctors, from serving their country. Arresting, prosecuting and executing doctors, in an effort to force them to leave the country, was the first step to erase the contributions of Baha’is to Iran’s medical and scientific development.

A second step came with Iran’s cultural revolution, which lasted from 1981 to 1983, beginning with the expulsion of Baha’i professors and students from Iranian universities. Today Baha’is are still barred from attending Iran’s institutions of higher education.

By eliminating Baha’i experts, and expelling Baha’i professors and students from the universities, the new Islamic Republic intended to remove those Baha’is already working in the healthcare and scientific sectors and to deprive Baha’is of higher education so that they would never again be able to play such roles in future Iranian society.

Education is, however, a cornerstone of Baha’i community life and individual Baha’is are encouraged to pursue education as far as possible. And so in 1987, to counter the attempts to deny Baha’i youth higher education, those Baha’i academics and experts who had been expelled from work created the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education, or BIHE, an informal educational project or “underground university”, allowing young Baha’is to study in private homes and through distance learning.

Over three decades, since the BIHE, it has withstood four attacks by security forces and the arrest and imprisonment of several professors as well as the confiscation of educational materials and facilities. Today the BIHE, with academic staff inside and outside the country, provides students with the possibility of continuing their education in 38 subjects at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. More than 110 universities and colleges around the world accept BIHE degrees and have accepted its graduates – including some of the most prestigious institutions around the world. Universities in America, Australia, Canada, Europe and India all accept BIHE students.

Dr. Esmail Talebian was one of the BIHE’s first professors. He had been an army doctor and pharmacologist, but had been dismissed in 1980 while head of Isfahan’s Khatami Hospital. He was banned from working as a pharmacologist, trading, and from leaving the country, and was also arrested four times for his activities within the Baha’i community. Today he lives in Canada, but in 2011, in Iran, he was prosecuted by Iran’s Intelligence Ministry for serving as a BIHE lecturer. He later left Iran for Turkey and then Canada.

Regarding BIHE’s healthcare courses, Dr. Talebian told IranWire: “Initially, we offered a 72-credit postgraduate degree under the title of basic sciences. After several terms, due to students’ high grades and their interest in continuing higher education, we decided to offer several separate fields up to the bachelor’s level, by increasing course credits. The medical department offered two fields, pharmacy and dental science. After a few terms, we decided that, because students in the field of dental science needed direct contact with patients during the training courses, and as we did not have permission for it, we had to remove the dental science course; instead, we added chemistry to the fields offered in the science department. Gradually, with the growth of the BIHE, biology was added to the courses offered for the bachelor’s level in the science department.”

The lessons were taught in two ways, Dr. Talebian said, theoretical and practical. “With the financial help of Baha’i families, we created science laboratories for students. The laboratories were raided three times by security forces, and all their equipment was confiscated and, in some cases, sealed. But after each attack, we established another laboratory with the help of the Baha’is so as not to disturb the students’ education,” he added, saying also that graduates of the Baha’i Higher Education Institute were on a par with graduates of formal universities around the world.

Towards the end of Dr. Talebian’s tenure at the BIHE inside Iran, in addition to Baha’i professors, some non-Baha’i university professors had also joined the BIHE and were even present when graduates were being instructed or defended their theses. Dr. Talebian told IranWire that, at one of these thesis defense meetings, after a student had presented a thesis entitled “Bacterial Resistance to Hospital Antibiotics,” a non-Baha’i professor of Tehran University who was present at the meeting said that such a subject had not been researched or written as a thesis even at the PhD level at the Tehran University.

Dr. Talebian also told IranWire that BIHE students hope to work in their homeland after graduating, but unfortunately, their degrees are not accepted by the Iranian Ministry of Science and many young BIHE graduates are employed in roles that do not recognize or take advantage of their training. Many BIHE students have pursued studies abroad as a result.

Dr. Talebian referred to one graduate, who received a master’s degree from the University of Ottawa in Canada and was awarded a doctoral scholarship by the university due to his high grades. The University of Ottawa invited this graduate to work as an assistant professor at the university – but he chose to return to Iran to Iran where his BIHE qualification was not accepted so that he might help to teach other BIHE students. But in his day job, instead of working at the level for which he is qualified, this Baha’I citizen has been employed in a factory as a person with pharmaceutical knowledge.

One more example of discrimination against educated Baha’is is Dr. Firouzeh Shafizadeh, who returned to Iran after completing studies in India, and began working as a pharmacist in Khotbesara Village in Gilan. But when the security forces learned that a Baha’i doctor was working in the area, they arrested her, releasing her only after 17 days.

Editor’s note: The original Persian edition of this article was first published in April 2020.


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