On August 19, the Baha’i International Community (BIC) issued a statement entitled “Iran’s Brazen Propaganda Ploy to Incriminate Baha’is Through Fake Videos and Hate Speech”. In it, the BIC accused the Iranian government of using a staged video production to falsely incriminate Baha’i citizens of Iran.
On July 31, the BIC reported, at the same time as Baha’i homes were being raided up and down the country, intelligence agents entered a kindergarten in a major city and handed Baha’i books and pamphlets out to the teachers. They then forced the staff to say, on camera, that Baha’is had come and distributed the material.
Iran’s Intelligence Ministry then issued a statement justifying the mass arrests and property seizures targeting Baha’is in the country. Among other things, it claimed, Baha’is in Iran were “propagating the teachings of the fabricated Baha’i colonialism and infiltrating educational environments” especially kindergartens.
Several Baha’i pre-school staff were arrested on this pretext. State TV has since aired a two-minute video in which one of the detainees is seen walking down the sidewalk, then entering a building. Shortly afterward, a child and their apparent guardian enter through the same door.
A voiceover by notorious “interrogator-journalist” Ameneh Sadat Zabihpour asserts that this building and others like it were “unauthorized Baha’i kindergartens” propagating the faith through books, games and early years education. Video footage and blurred, indistinct photographs appear to show youngsters in kindergartens at play, dancing to music and taking part in stage productions. The news segment was entitled “Detention of a Number of Central Members of the Baha’i Espionage Party”.
“Baha’i Kindergartens”: Do They Exist, and Does it Matter?
The Intelligence Ministry and the TV report both made the point that the offending kindergartens settings fell into two categories: those open to all youngsters, with instructors of all backgrounds who may or may not happen to be Bahais, and those conceived of as mostly by and for Baha’is.
With regard to the former, the Ministry claimed Baha’is had “infiltrated” kindergartens. In fact, a member of the Baha’i community in Iran told IranWire, “These facilities hire instructors in various areas such as painting, music, sports, and so on. Some Baha’is trained in these skills are hired. They’re not there by force or by subterfuge; they’re there because they have been offered employment by the director or other colleagues.”
In many cases, they said, the management of individual kindergartens had refused to work with Baha’is due to the stigma, though hiring them is not illegal. “It’s worth knowing,” the source added, “that one of those arrested was a graduate from a government vocational school, and it was on the school’s recommendation he found its job. He was working legally, with the backing of a government institution.”
There was, they added, no evidence that he or the others had talked to the children under their care about their faith. “If they did so, they would be expelled. The Baha’is mentioned in the statement and reports are professionals who, like everyone else, have taken courses in childcare and are working in their field of expertise. If a Baha’i carpenter goes to work in a carpentry shop, is his goal to ‘infiltrate’ and ‘proselytize’?”
The Ministry and the IRIB report also claimed that special “Baha’i kindergartens” existed in Iran, insinuating that these were sinister environments in which children were introduced to the faith. The Baha’i source that spoke to IranWire was incredulous: “This is what the followers of all religions all over the world traditionally do. Parents want to acquaint their children with their religious beliefs because they believe that in doing so, they’re bestowing a valuable gift on them. Baha’is are no exception; they want to familiarize their children with their religion. Now, if they don’t want to follow it after learning about it, [in the Baha’i faith] they are free to choose another school of thought to live by.”
That said, they added, the term “kindergarten” was used by the Islamic Republic to describe these settings, but that wasn’t the term Baha’is would have used. “Educating children is a religious duty for Baha’i parents,” they explained. “Holding classes for pre-school children is a tradition shared by all Baha’i communities around the world.
“Baha’i children are taught through music, painting and song. All religions, of course, share some of the same moral instructions: respecting your elders, not telling lies helping your fellow human beings, kindness to animals, avoiding dirty words, and so on. In these classes, all these topics and more are taught to children through games.”
Furthermore, they added, “Any child can attend these classes. Christian, Muslim, atheist and other parents do send their children here without fearing they’ll be indoctrinated. It’s only in Iran they are accused of proselytizing.”
For more than 40 years, the Islamic Republic has strived to sow religious hatred among the Shia citizenry, and to exclude Baha’is and other minority groups from public life. Even in private settings, they are not permitted to live – peaceably – in the way that they choose. “Airing those videos and pictures of Baha’i children on TV was a barbaric act,” the source said. “These were mementos of somebody’s children’s time at school, things parents were keeping hold of. They were confiscated by security agents.”